Who is following up on Hebgen Dam?
Three groups file complaint against NorthWestern Energy in Jan. 2022
In November 2021, a gate component failed on Hebgen Dam and cut off two thirds of the flow to the fabled Madison River. The public noticed the drop in water levels the next morning and tried to alert NorthWestern Energy (NWE) but struggled to get a hold of the entity for a few hours.
Jeremy Clotfelter, the director of hydro operations for NWE, confirmed flows dropped on the Madison River on Nov. 30 around 2-3 a.m. According to USGS charts, the river went from about 648 CFS to around 216 CFS—a 67% reduction in water flow.
The substantial gate malfunction dried up portions of the river and stranded fish and other aquatic species. The Madison River is known as one of the most renowned blue ribbon trout streams in southwestern Montana and is the economic and spiritual lifeblood for many communities.
NWE responded to the gate malfunction with a companywide all-hands-on-deck. They identified a gate stand coupling as the problem underwater, ordered a new piece to be manufactured in Anaconda in record time, and restored flows to the Madison River. All told, it took NWE about 40 hours to get the river back to normal.
Overall, the impacts on the Madison River were difficult to determine. Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP) recently said the influence on the fishery is still unknown.
“It could take more than a year to measure and understand what, if any, population level impacts have occurred,” said FWP spokesperson Morgan Jacobsen. David Brooks, executive director for Montana Trout Unlimited, agreed.
“Lots of people think there’s going to be impact to the fishery, but we don’t know. That data is not in yet,” said Brooks.
Since completing the repair, NWE began an internal review process called a root cause analysis and sent out the broken piece for metallurgical testing. They also put together a team led by Andy Welch focused on the ecological impacts on the river that is working with agencies like the United States Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP).
Asked what mitigation efforts have been proposed by stakeholders for the Madison River, NWE said they had not received any feedback or facilitated any conversations. One concern that emerged from the public was that the dewatering event did not trigger NWE alarms.
“We started hearing about this from people who were watching the river go down. It should have been NorthWestern Energy, as soon as that happened, alerting the public about it,” explained Montana Trout Unlimited executive director David Brooks.
In addition, when community members like John McClure of Galloup’s Slide Inn tried to notify NWE about the emergency during the event, he could not get through to anyone.
“What’s really frustrating is that there’s not a hotline to call for the dam... It is really frustrating when you’re trying to call in an emergency,” said McClure back in November.
Clotfelter confirmed additional alarms have been added to Hebgen to prevent this from happening again and they’ve temporarily installed a metal cable to hold the gate up as a last resort. They have not added an emergency hotline specifically for Hebgen Dam.
Jo Dee Black, a public relation specialist for NWE, explained there already is a 24/7 staffed customer service line for NWE emergencies. The number is 1-888-467-2669.
Who will put forward the funds to figure out the impact of the dewatering event on the Madison River is still unclear. Andy Welch explained NWE financially supports some of the regulatory agency's—USFS, BLM, FWP— positions, figuring out the timing for personnel is complicated, and NWE is not sure how much they can afford.
WHO IS FOLLOWING UP ON HEBGEN DAM AND NORTHWESTERN ENERGY?
In January, three Montana conservation organizations including the Madison River Foundation, Upper Missouri Waterkeepers and Montana Environmental Information Center filed a formal citizens complaint with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
“The goal here, that everyone should be aiming for, is again how do we have clarity for number one, qualifying and quantifying the impact to the fishery and the habitat and number two, how do we make sure that we have a transparent, accountable, and enforceable framework for making right what happened? Because again, we don’t understand how far reaching those impacts are going to be. That’s why we are asking for a very thorough independent investigation,” explained Guy Alsentzer, the founder of Upper Missouri Waterkeepers.
FERC is the governing body that issued NWE a 40 year license for dams on the Madison River. Ultimately, NWE is accountable to FERC. The deadline for NWE to respond to the complaint, propose the findings from their internal investigation and lay out a plan for figuring out the impact on the Madison River is March 23. The groups believe a fundamental part of the process is for NWE to foot the bill rather than taxpayers.
“We pointed out in our complaint that one of the things that was very troubling to us was the Madison River Foundation had an expert biologist conduct his own survey essentially qualifying the habitat conditions downstream of Hebgen. And what he found in terms of the habitat conditions was dramatically different in terms of worse habitat conditions than what the biologists were saying for NWE. So, it was like the difference of rose-tinted lenses being used in reports,” Alsentzer said.
That is why the groups believe it is necessary for at least one independent third party to verify NWE’s results of ongoing impact studies from the dewatering event. FERC creates a transparent process that holds NWE accountable and ensures they explain what they intend to do.
Ultimately, the groups believe it is important to speak up for the voiceless river.