Hydropower is a big resource in Montana. It accounted for almost a third of the state’s net electricity generation in 2015. Floods and droughts are always on dam managers’ minds, but lately, energy producers are also worried about tiny, non-native mollusks that could wreak havoc on Montana’s hydropower facilities.
“Let's head on downstairs,” says Brian Lipscomb, descending into the belly of the SKQ Project’s powerhouse, one floor above the turbines. Lipscomb is the CEO of Energy Keepers, Inc., a tribal corporation in Polson that manages the Seli’š Ksanka Qlispe’ Project, formerly called the Kerr Dam.
“You can see this network of piping, we have cooling water coming in, starting with eight-inch pipes here, and it gets all the way down to two-inch pipes as they go through the pumps here,” he says, pointing out series of skinny pastel white and teal pipes that line the walls and keep the turbines running smoothly. This is where the mussels could colonize quickly and stack on top of each other, clogging pipes to the point where even water can’t pass through.
“This piping runs all the way through the plant,” Lipscomb says, “so all of this piping would be impacted.”
Lipscomb says if these mussels get into the pipes, they could cut energy production by as much as 25 percent. Zebra and quagga mussels have already caused billions of dollars of damage to hydropower plants in Great Lake states, and last summer, juveniles were detected in two lakes in eastern Montana.
Since then, the state has ramped up its efforts to keep the mussels out. This spring, the legislature passed a bill that assesses fees on fishing licenses, hydroelectric facilities and some utilities to generate an estimated $14 million dollars over the next two years. That will pay for inspection and decontamination stations for boaters across the state to help prevent spreading the mussels.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure is how we looked at it,” says Senator Chas Vincent, R-Libby. Vincent sponsored the new legislation. “The cost of doing nothing last session would have been much greater than what we ultimately ended up with for two years.”
The new fees on fishing licenses were assessed this spring: $2 for in-state and $15 for out of state. The first quarterly payment of the hydroelectric facility fee is due September 30.
Vincent says even the final version is not perfect. That’s why there’s a sunset date of 2019 written into it, he adds. But for now, Vincent says his bill is the most equitable way to pay for prevention.
“If we can't find the money out of the general fund to do it, we need to find a way that is going to touch everybody just one time, and that's what I want everybody to be thinking about,” he says. “How do we make everybody in the state that’s going to benefit from the prevention and containment of this zebra mussel, how do we allow them to participate without breaking the bank, and as well allow those out-of -staters to participate in their share as well in sharing our natural resources? How do we do that without making one or two portions of our society have to pay two and three times?”
If a mussel infestation were to hit Montana, hydropower facilities, and by proxy their customers, could be hard hit. Everything from pipes to turbines to mesh metal screens that cover intake valves could see damage from the mussels.
NorthWestern Energy is Montana’s largest utility, providing electricity to about 365,000 people. It generates about 40 percent of its electricity from hydropower.
“We really don't know the cost impact at this point in time,” says Jeremy Clotfelter, NorthWestern’s superintendent of hydro operations and maintenance. “I think there's so many unknowns and there's so many variables from site to site that I wouldn't want to even conjecture on what kind of cost impacts this may have.”
For now, NorthWestern will pay roughly $1.4 million dollars a year to the state aquatic invasive species fund. If at some point the energy company chooses to do its own mussel mitigation projects, the project cost will be deducted from that fee. But aside from keeping an eye on the mussels’ spread, Clotfelter says NorthWestern doesn’t have any mitigation plans in the works.
“I wouldn't say I'm overly concerned at this point, but we're being diligent,” he says.
Back in Polson, Energy Keepers, Inc., the company that manages the Seli’š Ksanka Qlispe’ Project, is not subject to the hydro-facility fee. As a tribal corporation, the state doesn’t have jurisdiction to tax or impose fees on it. Instead, Energy Keepers makes regular payments to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to fund environmental projects. The tribes plan to spend nearly a quarter of a million dollars next year on boat inspection stations, lake monitoring and public outreach and education.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has not detected adult or juvenile mussels in the state’s waters this season. FWP will continue sampling through the fall.
Montana PBS’s Beth Saboe contributed reporting to this story.