COLUMBUS — Water began flowing into the Loup Power Canal again after Loup Public Power District received a waiver from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Loup Power President and CEO Neal Suess said the temporary waiver was issued around noon Monday, allowing the local electric utility to resume the diversion of water from the Loup River into the 35-mile canal.
"We're in the process of opening diversion back up and letting some water back in," Suess said Monday afternoon.
The district was forced to shut off water flow into the canal around 6:30 p.m. Saturday, a result of the conditions included in the utility's updated license to operate its hydroelectric facilities, which include the canal and powerhouses near Columbus and Monroe.
That order, issued May 22 by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), states that the district is required to cease water diversion into the canal when the water temperature in the Platte River reaches 93 degrees at the Louisville gauge. This was part of the biological opinion submitted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which was incorporated into the license order from FERC.
The order states that Loup Power cannot restart diversion into the canal until the water temperature at Louisville drops below 93 degrees for 72 consecutive hours.
A press release issued by Loup Power says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requested a suspension of certain conditions in the new license order on Wednesday, but FERC did not approve the waiver until Monday.
Although diversion was stopped for less than two days — and it's impossible to completely shut off water flow at the Genoa Headworks without sandbagging — the fish population in the canal was still impacted.
Suess said approximately 100 to 200 fish died in certain portions of the canal between Saturday night and Monday morning.
"Hopefully that will be the minimum amount of damage that we see at this point," he said.
Calling the FERC order to shut down diversion a "worst-case scenario," Loup Power expected a significant fish kill if water flow was halted for an extended period. Restricted water use for irrigation was also a possibility.
Without water from the river flowing in, the canal warms up and becomes stagnant, losing oxygen, according to Suess.
He said the 80-year-old canal has only run dry twice, both times intentionally for maintenance work, so that isn't a major concern.
In a press release issued Saturday, Suess called the water-flow restrictions included in the new hydroelectric license "an overreach of the federal government and a blatant disregard for a balancing of endangered species concerns, local wildlife and local agricultural interest."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is concerned about the effects the water diversion has on protected species such as the piping plover, pallid sturgeon and least tern. Both the Loup River and Loup Power Canal empty into the Platte River southeast of Columbus.
Loup Power also has financial concerns associated with the updated rules since it cannot generate electricity at the Columbus and Monroe powerhouses without sufficient water flow in the canal. The utility estimates the potential costs and lost revenue associated with the rules could total more than $2 million annually.
Loup Power filed an emergency motion to put the canal flow restrictions on hold during its legal battle to overturn certain parts of the order. However, this motion was denied by FERC on June 9. The district also filed a request for a rehearing on certain portions of the order.
FERC will not be able to take action on the district's request until it reaches a quorum of at least three commissioners. The timing for this decision is unknown as there is only one commissioner currently on the FERC board.
President Donald Trump has nominated additional commissioners who have not yet been ratified by the Senate, according to Loup Power.
"The district will work with the USFWS, as well as FERC, to review the flow restrictions contained with the new license order, to look for areas of agreement for protection not only of the endangered species within the project boundaries, but for all wildlife in this area," Loup Power said in a release. "This has been the district's concern all along in the filing of our license application with FERC."