PROSPECT — Bill Cross only can imagine what it would have been like to paddle a kayak in summer through the North Fork of the Rogue River's steepest stretch of whitewater 80 years ago, before hydropower tamed this stretch of the Rogue.
Since the mid-1920s, the North Fork dam has diverted water through electric turbines and away from the Avenue of the Giant Boulders and a deep canyon framed by waterfalls.
During eight days this summer, however, Cross and other whitewater enthusiasts will get a taste of the past while helping frame the future.
Under a new 30-year federal relicensing agreement for the dam, the hydropower plant near Prospect will have its water flows curtailed on eight pre-set days each summer and the water will be spilled into the North Fork for whitewater cowboys like Cross.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has required the dam's owner, PacifiCorp, to add these changes to a list of stream-enhancement measures to make up for the altered environment the dam creates.
On the Fourth of July, Labor Day and one weekend each July, August and September, PacifiCorp will push enough water down the North Fork to augment high-end whitewater kayaking and rafting through about 4.5 miles of stream normally too low in summer for paddling.
The predictability of these flows and the high-class whitewater expected there could turn this stretch of all-but-ignored river into a whitewater showcase that should draw expert boaters from throughout the Northwest, Cross said.
"It's a truly spectacular piece of water," said Cross, who has floated that stretch only once during his 30-year whitewater career. "It's likely to be a regional draw because it has rapids that appeal to expert kayakers and there's some really stunning scenery."
The whitewater requirements were pushed by the group American Whitewater, which has been lobbying to add recreation into mitigation agreements for hydro-dam relicensing throughout the country since the late 1980s.
The new releases will come at a cost.
The 50-foot-tall dam feeds 260-acre North Fork Reservoir, which funnels water into three powerhouses that power customers in northern Jackson County and southern Douglas County.
It generates about 41.5 megawatts of power per hour — enough to power 17,000 average homes for an hour, said Russ Howison, a PacifiCorp recreation planner in Portland who worked with American Whitewater representatives on this project.
For each of the whitewater days, PacifiCorp stands to lose the opportunity to generate about 300 megawatts of electricity — enough to power 120,000 homes for an hour, he said.
"That's a cost the company would have to absorb and not necessarily pass on to the consumers," Howison said.
Howison characterized the loss as "pretty significant locally," but "relatively minor" on a statewide or regional grid scale. The utility could purchase replacement energy on the open market to make up any shortfalls, Howison said.
"We're always concerned with anything that results in a loss of generation," Howison said. "(But) people in the Medford area don't have to be worried about their lights going off because of this."
PacifiCorp's greatest concern is public safety, particularly around two power plants between the North Fork dam and Lost Creek Lake.
A power outage in the local grid forces the powerhouse to "trip" off line, creating a high-pressure jet of water released into the tailrace from the powerhouse, Howison said.
The pressure, which Howison likened to 10-times the power of a large fire hose, would be severe for anyone caught in its path, Howison said.
"The company considers that a very real risk to the public, and that's really where our concern is," Howison said. "The odds of a boater being in the wrong place at the wrong time are low. But it doesn't alleviate the issue, in our minds."
PacifiCorp will look into ways for paddlers to portage around those facilities, Howison said.
PacifiCorp and whitewater boaters will spend the next three summers experimenting to determine just how the releases will work, what levels of water flows will be best and what specific weekends to choose.
During the first two days of extra releases this summer, volunteer kayakers will float the stretches at four different flows between 85 cubic feet per second and 500 cfs. They will then give their input on the experience to a Montana consultant hired for the project.
Throughout the ensuing three summers, boaters who float the stretch will be asked to fill out a online questionnaire.
Boaters and PacifiCorp will then present a final plan to FERC.
Mitigation projects added to energy relicensing packages are usually focused on habitat improvement.
Tom O'Keefe, American Whitewater's Pacific Northwest stewardship director, said the group is most interested in river stewardship, and access to natural habitats help foster an appreciation for protecting them.
"A big part of protecting rivers is to make sure people have an opportunity to experience this place," he said.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail email@example.com.