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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Bridging the Chippewa on the Red Cedar Trail. The river provides a host of outdoor recreational activities and serves as a hydropower source. © Don Blegen
Bridging the Chippewa River on the Red Cedar Trail. The river provides a host of outdoor recreational activities and serves as a hydropower source.

© Don Blegen

October 2001

Changes on the Chippewa

An agreement on Xcel Energy's six hydropower dams on the Lower Chippewa River will bring changes in power generation and improvements for river biology and recreation.

Thomas Lovejoy

There's a lot of talk going on about energy issues: deregulation, conservation, increased retail competition where consumers can shop for the cheapest supplier or for "green" sources, wind power, ethanol production, the separation of power generation and transmission sectors to prevent monopolies, blackouts, brownouts, skyrocketing energy bills. If all that's not enough to drain your generator, recent new studies show global warming is worse than expected.

It's hard to keep track of it all, let alone figure out what it might mean down the road. But here's how one small piece of the puzzle will look for the next 30-50 years on 120 miles of the Chippewa River, and it's a pretty good-looking forecast. Who should care? Thousands of Xcel Company (formerly Northern States Power Company) energy customers, and thousands of residents and visitors who come to play on the Chippewa River.

It's a big river, the Chippewa. The headwaters, including the Flambeau River, start in Wisconsin's northern forests in Iron, Ashland and Bayfield counties. Flowing south and west with a mean annual flow of about 7,700 cubic feet/second, the Chippewa drops more than 700 feet in elevation before emptying into the Mississippi River near Lake Pepin. Along its shores are some of Wisconsin's great natural treasures – the Turtle Flambeau Flowage in Iron County, Lac Court Oreilles and the Chippewa Flowage near Hayward, Lake Holcombe and Lake Wissota in Chippewa County and the Lower Chippewa River State Natural Area in Dunn and Pepin counties.

The Chippewa is a classic example of a multi-purpose river. People fish, boat, camp, hike, bike, snowmobile and swim on or along the river. The river provides healthy habitat for aquatic plants and animals. The Chippewa assimilates wastewater from municipal and industrial dischargers. And it generates electricity from hydropower dams. In fact, six Xcel Energy projects on the lower Chippewa generate over one-third of the hydropower in Wisconsin, enough to serve more than 65,000 households.

Multiple uses are often the source of multiple conflicts. For example, uncontrolled wastewater discharges reduce water quality, harm the fishery and make the water less attractive for recreation. Dams can block free navigation for boaters and fish, and dam operations can disrupt normal water levels and flows, creating unnatural fluctuations in both upstream flowages and downstream tailwaters. Such fluctuations can strand fish and other aquatic organisms in shallow areas; in spring, fish eggs deposited in shallows can be left high and dry. Changing water levels can reduce the diversity and the spread of aquatic plant communities, which in turn limits food and cover for fish and wildlife. Boaters can be swamped by a sudden flow increase below a dam, or cut off from landings and docks if the gates are shut.

Can dams, power and a quality environment coexist?

That's the challenge a diverse group recently faced when three dams on the lower Chippewa were due for relicensing by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Xcel licenses for the Holcombe, Wissota and Dells projects each expired between 1998-2000. New licenses must be obtained for the next 30-50 years. Federal rules require licensees to hold public meetings and consult with interested parties starting five years before licenses expire. Xcel's discussions with state and federal agencies, nonprofit groups, City of Eau Claire officials, and local sporting and outdoor groups aimed to identify and resolve any changes in the way dams are operated to prevent conflicts.

The issues debated in dam relicensing discussions have changed in the last few decades. Following the oil crises of the '70s but before the mid-1980s, regulations focused on promoting domestic energy production and reducing dependence on foreign oil. There was little general concern for potential environmental problems. But our attention was refocused by the rapid development of Alaskan and offshore oil and natural gas fields.

Under the Electric Consumers Protection Act of 1986, power and non-power values of public resources must be considered equally in hydro licensing. Court cases granted states the authority to impose restrictions to protect water quality and recreation. The rulings opened the door for natural resource agencies and any other interested party to raise issues as dams were relicensed.

The effects are less dramatic on the Lower Chippewa River hydro projects as the power company already had a strong environmental record before new federal rules were imposed. In fact, in 1984 Northern States Power had received the distinguished John C. Brogan Award for including measures to enhance the environment and recreation in its Jim Falls hydro project.

Nevertheless there were concerns, especially about the company's practice of "peaking" – turning a power plant on and off, usually in a daily cycle, to generate electricity during highest (peak) demand periods, when power generation is most profitable.

Dams that maintain normal river flow and make a steady amount of energy all day are called "run-of-river" plants. The Xcel dams on the lower Chippewa historically operate in peaking mode, storing water above dams at night and on weekends, and then releasing large volumes during weekdays, when energy use is higher. The practice causes pronounced, rapid changes in downstream flow when dam gates are opened or shut. At the Dells of the Eau Claire Dam, low flow passes a minimum of 500 cubic feet per second (cfs) during nights and on weekends, compared to a maximum flow of 5,400 cfs when generating at full capacity. The change from a minimum flow to full generation raises the water more than two feet below the dam.

A winter drawdown on Lake Holcome, part of the Chippewa system. Severe drawdowns have been eliminated under the new settlement. © Xcel Energy
A winter drawdown on Lake Holcome, part of the Chippewa system. Severe drawdowns have been eliminated under the new settlement.

© Xcel Energy

People objected to the unnatural water level fluctuations, which disrupted fishing, wildlife observation and recreation on the Chippewa. There were other issues as well: Fish can be trapped and killed as they pass through powerhouse turbines during peak production. Dissolved oxygen levels dipped low during winter drawdowns. Shoreline erosion can occur during drawdowns. When given the opportunity to comment on 30- to 50-year plans, people wanted to hear how Xcel proposed to provide more recreation and greater access to the water, improve boat launches and recreational facilities, protect endangered and threatened species, and control exotic aquatic species.

Initial meetings between Xcel and the natural resource agencies made little progress. To move ahead, Xcel and local interests agreed to sit down together to try to work out their differences through a negotiated settlement. Any interested group or organization could join the "Settlement Team." Twelve parties agreed to participate: Xcel Energy, the City of Eau Claire, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the River Alliance of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, the Chippewa Rod and Gun Club, the Lake Holcombe and Lake Wissota improvement associations, and the Lower Chippewa River Restoration Coalition.

The team began meeting in late 1997 and quickly agreed on three goals: provide reasonable measures for the full 30 to 50 year term of the new licenses; protect and enhance the river's environmental and recreational resources; and use a flexible approach to sustain hydropower generation. Discussions focused on the three projects due for relicensing, but Xcel's other three dams on the lower Chippewa (Cornell, Jim Falls and Chippewa Falls) could also be considered.

The Settlement Team met monthly from 1998- 2000 to gather information and discuss issues. The team compared the benefits of quick-start hydro plants to coal and nuclear plants. Xcel's representatives described the difference between on- and off-peak energy value. They emphasized the company's need to maintain reliable service and retain capacity to generate power as a member of the Mid Area Continental Power Pool (MAPP). Xcel needed the flexibility to draw on full hydropower to generate energy at peak use times, when power can be sold at higher profits. Otherwise, the company might have to build new power plants or purchase contracts from other utilities to dependably and economically meet customers' peak energy demands.

Next came biological information. Surveys inventoried aquatic and terrestrial resources. Technical studies measured and predicted potential biological consequences from existing operations. Computer models compared aquatic conditions under current conditions and a variety of peaking and run-of-river alternatives. Those studies helped determine how each option could improve fish spawning success, protect or expand desirable plant growth, enhance water quality and reduce fish entrapment in shallow areas.

Other surveys measured current recreational patterns on the river and projected how modified power generation might change outdoor uses in the area. Studies examined how boating conditions and traffic would adjust as power generation varied the river flow. The company assessed the adequacy of existing boat launches, hiking paths, swimming areas, campsites, picnic and day-use areas along the river. It also identified locations needing erosion controls, surveyed historical/archaeological resources, and estimated what measures would be required to protect wildlife habitat and public uses.

Discussions produce a plan for action

Armed with stacks of new information, the team developed a plan to protect both power and non-power values on the upper Chippewa River. Some issues were quickly resolved, others were not so easy. Here's a summary of the outcome.

Xcel will continue to operate all six hydro dams as peaking projects, but flows will be substantially modified to reduce fluctuations both above and below each dam. Minimum flows will increase at Cornell, Jim Falls and Chippewa Falls. The Dells Dam will be operated to fine-tune and "re-regulate" peaking from upstream dams, especially during fish spawning. The difference between the low and high flows from Dells Dam will be less, to match more closely the natural flow rates on the river upstream of all dams. This will greatly improve aquatic habitat on the 60-mile river stretch from Eau Claire to the Mississippi River. Winter drawdowns at Lake Holcombe and Lake Wissota will be eliminated. Xcel will also implement new plans to prevent serious damage from emergency drawdowns, drought and dam maintenance projects.

The power utility will finance a $3.25 million Fish Protection Fund. The cost is roughly equal to the amount the company would have spent installing devices to exclude fish from dams. Such devices will be installed once the industry develops reliable technology to prevent downstream fish passage through power turbines. If there are no technical solutions, the funds will be used for fish habitat improvements. An additional half-million dollars will fund habitat protection/restoration projects and cover the costs of measuring how fish respond to changes in dam operations.

Walleye, a prime Chippewa River catch. Limiting water level fluctuations during spawning helps fry survive to trophy size.© Don Blegen
Walleye, a prime Chippewa River catch. Limiting water level fluctuations during spawning helps fry survive to trophy size.

© Don Blegen

Xcel will cover the costs of improving boat launches, expanding and upgrading parking, installing signs, and constructing barrier-free fishing piers in several locations. The firm will also install erosion controls, implement new natural resource and land management plans, and provide money to monitor water quality studies along the river.

During the next year or so, FERC will review the Settlement Agreement and decide if it will incorporate the provisions into new licenses and amend licenses for all six hydro dams. We expect the licenses will be issued, because all parties resolved the major issues. If and when that happens, an Implementation Team representing the same groups that negotiated the agreement would coordinate and monitor how the funds are used.

Can dams and a quality environment coexist? The Settlement Team thinks so. They recognized hydropower as a valued use on the Chippewa and found creative ways to maintain energy production and capacity. The Chippewa River will remain a public resource and the parties agreed that Xcel's use of the river must not jeopardize other public interests.

While this settlement may not solve all the world's energy problems, it just might make you feel a little better the next time you turn on a light switch. Or, for that matter, the next Saturday afternoon you decide to head out for Lake Holcombe, Lake Wissota or some other favorite spot on the Chippewa.

Thomas Lovejoy supervises the Environmental Analysis and Enforcement Team in DNR's West Central Region.