Albeni Falls Dam meeting draws contentious crowd

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

In the first of two public meetings offered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to explain restricted operations at Albeni Falls Dam, representatives engaged with hundreds of concerned residents May 30 at the Ponderay Events Center, answering questions and interacting with locals alarmed about Lake Pend Oreille reaching summer pool later than normal.

Officials also spoke to members of the public about dam operations May 31 at the Camas Center for Community Wellness in Cusick, Wash.

Almost 250 people turned out for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers public meeting May 30 in Ponderay. Photo by Ben Olson.

After delamination of the steel in a spillway gate was discovered in April 2024 as part of a dam rehabilitation contract started in June 2023, the U.S. Army Corps removed spillway gate No. 3 on May 14, and reduced powerhouse flows to mitigate flood risks that might arise during storm events in the immediate future. 

As a result, Lake Pend Oreille is slated to reach its summer pool level of 2,062.5 feet later than usual — probably at the end of June, Corps officials told the audience. But they were quick to point out that reaching that target was a goal, not a promise.

“It could be earlier, it could be later,” said USACE Col. Kathryn Sanborn.

Almost every seat was full at the Ponderay Events Center, with another 50-75 people lining the back and side walls at the May 30 public meeting, putting the total attendance at around 250 people. 

Sanborn led the meeting, with a dais filled with Albeni Falls Dam personnel, structural engineers and water managers occasionally fielding questions from the audience. She shared background information on the defective gate, and explained why operations were restricted at the dam. 

A view of the defects found in gate No. 3 (the defects were found in the girders circled in red). Photo courtesy of USACE.

“Albeni Falls is a multipurpose project,” Sanborn said. “It’s not just for one thing. It’s used for many different things. In our case: hydropower, flood risk management, navigation, recreation, and fish and wildlife conservation,” later emphasized that the list was not in order or priority.

Under normal operations, spillway gates could be moved at the same time as others using a gantry crane that sits on the spillway decks. The gates could be moved up to release water or down to store water. Under restricted operations, as the dam is now, gates are only moved one at a time when necessary to control lake refill and manage flood risk. Also, when possible, thegates will only be moved to fully open or fully closed.

Since spring flood risk is still in effect, storing too much water might lead to Albeni Falls becoming unable to mitigate flood risks, should significant weather events send too much inflow for the restricted dam to manage. With the Pend Oreille basin stretching throughout North Idaho and western Montana, comprising 24,000 square miles, it’s extremely complicated to manage inflow risks, officials said. The Corps said they could make use of lake storage up to the minor flood stage of 2,063.5 during a late season and high inflow event if necessary.

“We are operating to avoid the worst-case scenario,” said Upper Columbia Senior Water Manager Leon Basdekas. “The inflow is much higher in Albeni Falls than its storage versus Libby Dam or Hungry Horse Dam or Dworshak Dam. … Refilling Lake Pend Oreille, we need to maximize what storage we have. We can help shave the peak off of an inflow event, but we just can’t store that much water compared to other dams. … We’re trying to avoid losing the ability to control the gate.”

If there were to be a worst-case scenario of a gate failure during high spring inflows, Sanborn said the danger to crane operators could result in injury or death. Also, dam officials would lose the ability to control the lake level all season, if not longer. 

Basdekas told local boaters they would have plenty of notice to pull out their boats before the level dropped after a gate failure, usually about a foot every week or two. Then, the lake would slowly drain to 2,057 feet and continue to drop through the fall.

Those in the audience expressed a number of concerns, sometimes erupting in loud commentary and condemnations. One man stormed out of the meeting after shouting accusations at representatives that they weren’t taking the situation seriously enough. Most, however, were respectful — if not frustrated — in their questioning of officials.

One asked why the Corps took 10 months to identify steel defects on the gate, when work could have been started during winter pool months.

“I know you guys are frustrated,” Sanborn said. “I’m frustrated, too. Ten months is unacceptable and it’s something we’re dealing with within the bounds of our contract.”

Because every gate was manufactured when the dam was built in 1955, Sanborn said they all potentially have the same defect in the steel — a problem that will not go away quickly.

“We are trying to cut down the time, but the reality is, it’s going to be years, not months,” Sanborn said, when asked what kind of timeline fixing the spillway gate metal defects will have. She said the gates had a lifespan of about 50 years when constructed, and are now almost 20 years past that lifespan. Sanborn said her team is investigating every short-term solution in the meantime.

She was asked if there are spare gates available to borrow from other dams, but since each dam was built with its own design and measurements, that isn’t an option.

 “We need to look at the rest of the gates. I need a short-term solution I can safely put in place without an elevated risk of gate failure,” Sanborn said.

Several in attendance said the local economy is being negatively affected by the delay in reaching summer pool, and that their businesses are suffering. They urged the Corps to take quick action.

Some urged the Corps to bring the lake to summer pool now, either for economic or recreational purposes, but Sanborn said the top priority for the dam remains, “life, health and safety.”

“We are actively developing a temporary engineering solution for short-term corrective action to provide limited gate usage,” she said. “This is 11 gates, which is not an insignificant rehab. That’s not going to have an insignificant price tag. We’re working on these actions in terms of long-term planning solutions.”

Sign up for updates on Albeni Falls Dam operations by emailing [email protected] or calling 206-764-3750.

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