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Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011 02:30 pm

Pull the plug on Hunter Dam

In December 2008, federal and state regulators told city officials (for the third time) that Hunter Dam was a turkey. They demanded yet more information about the supposed need and the claimed insufficiency of alternatives. Advocates for the dam claim that do-nothing, unreasonable bureaucrats have this wonderful project tied up in red tape. The truth, however, is far different.

CWLP’s cost comparisons used to tout Hunter Dam over the alternatives would embarrass any credible economist. They cite a completely irrelevant metric (“the lowest cost per million gallons a day capacity”). The dam project is sized for 21 million gallons a day (MGD), while the claimed “deficit” is only 9.1 MGD once every 100 years! Alternatives were sized at 12 MGD – inflating their cost by a third. The cost per gallon of water needed is the proper standard, and when that is used, Hunter Dam is by far the most costly way to get more water. Regulators bound by law to only approve the effective alternative that meets the need at the lowest cost and is least destructive to the environment are likely not fooled. They also know CWLP failed to include expensive items: riprap for the shoreline, costs for monitoring and protection of their claimed “mitigation plan,” costs for sewer plans (some made necessary by the dam), and costs for cemetery protection or relocations for burial sites.

Regulators know CWLP refuses to do obvious things within their immediate power to substantially reduce drought risk, such as a promised 1.6 MGD ash pond water recycling program, and a promised conversion to dry ash handling that could save another 1 MGD. Regulators know that installation of the South Fork pumping station largely resolved problems which caused the severe mid-1950s draw-down on the lake. They know actual water usage today is little different than it was 30 years ago, and they are keenly aware of the dam proponents’ history of inflating demand figures to sometimes absurd levels.

Knowing a dam can’t be justified based on real consumption data, dam hawks claim that in the 100-year drought (which statistically has only a 39 percent chance of actually occurring), there will be a deficit of 9.1 MGD. CWLP’s environmental impact study claims that 3.6 MGD of this is excess drought demand, but its own study found only 0.6 MGD excess during the drought of record, thus inflating the “need” by 3 MGD. CWLP also admitted that it overstated by 1.1 MGD the amount needed for consumptive use by the power plant. Regulators know of these and many other flaws in the claimed “need” (e.g. claimed increases in the size of the current service territory, hypothetical new industries, keeping the lake an extra foot higher, not accounting for decreased demand from huge rate increases necessitated by dam costs, etc.).

Regulators forced CWLP to comply with the law and study alternatives to the costly and destructive dam; as a result, we now know of better ways to get plenty of clean water to secure our future at far less cost. Old figures for the yields of the gravel lakes show “only” 4.8 MGD (enough, by the way, to meet the need, using CWLP’s own figures), but a newer study commissioned by CWLP itself showed it was actually 7.4 MGD now, and it costs just 41 percent of woefully underestimated costs for Hunter Dam. If wells are added to the gravel pits to get a total of 12 MGD, the cost is only 51 percent. Alternatives can be completed much more quickly than the minimum seven years for Hunter Dam (two years of studies, five years to build, assuming no litigation).

The problem is not “federal and state bureaucracy,” which has bent over backwards to give them a fourth chance to get it right. CWLP is unable to demonstrate need for the project, or, if a need is assumed, that Hunter Dam is the least costly, least destructive alternative. Three times they have tried to deceive federal and state regulators, and each time the regulators insisted on compliance with the law.

The most recent resuscitation of this backward boondoggle rests on the shoulders of Mayor Mike Houston, who advocates throwing good money after bad. For a supposed budget hawk bent on slashing waste, this drive to spend another million dollars for more studies over two years on a turkey project that will cost more than $100 million is incomprehensible, particularly when the city is broke and facing cuts in basic services. A responsible body politic would abandon Hunter Dam now, before we spend another $1 million we can’t afford on a project we’ve been told three times does not comply with law.

The new leadership at CWLP should recommend a more sensible approach, avoiding the waste of staff resources required to ride herd on $1 million in contracts fleeced from taxpayers for studies by firms that profit from building dams. They should pull the plug on Hunter Dam, and move ahead to the task of taking this proposed wasteful fiasco and turning it into a real prize, saving the land in case we really need a lake in 100 years, and preserving its rich history and enduring beauty for generations to come.

Don Hanrahan is a local attorney who was born and raised in Springfield. He has been active in opposing Hunter Dam since 1988. He was a presenter in the Citizens Club public debate on Hunter Dam and has been spokesperson for Citizens for Sensible Water Use for several years.
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