Dams & Fish: The Next 30 Years


Ken Dey
The Idaho Statesman

Idaho - Fish and wildlife populations need better protection from Idaho Power Co. before the federal government gives the Boise company permission to continue using the Hells Canyon Dam complex to generate electricity.
That´s the word from the U.S. Forest Service, one of hundreds of stakeholders — government agencies, tribes, environmentalists, recreationists — whose comments will help determine what Idaho Power must do to get a 30-year extension of its license to operate the three Hells Canyon dams after 2005.

The relicensing of Hells Canyon Dam complex is of critical importance to Idaho Power.

The company owns and operates 17 hydropower projects on the Snake River and its tributaries, but the three-dam Hells Canyon complex is the company´s largest hydropower project.

Electricity generated at Hells Canyon makes up nearly two-thirds of the company´s hydro generating capacity. In a normal water year, hydropower provides about 60 percent of the company´s electricity.

The right to use those dams currently rests with a 50-year license granted by the federal government that expires in 2005. Idaho Power has filed a 25,000-page draft application to obtain a new federal license for Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon dams.

But Idaho Power´s scientific studies were “inadequate” in addressing a number of key issues, according to a 272-page response submitted by officials with the Payette and Wallowa-Whitman national forests.

Some of the bigger concerns raised in the Forest Service response were Idaho Power´s failure to address the lack of sediment in the water downstream from Hells Canyon Dam and its reluctance to offer alternatives that would aid the reintroduction of native salmon and steelhead and improve the health of existing fish.

The Forest Service review doesn´t indicate how any of its suggestions would affect power production, and Idaho Power officials say they aren´t prepared to comment yet on the Forest Service review.

But Idaho Power has said that public involvement of agencies such as the Forest Service and other parties is critical to ensure that the new license “strikes the appropriate balance between power production and the needs of recreation, safety and the environment.”

Idaho Power spokesman Dennis Lopez said the company couldn´t comment on the specific issues raised by the Forest Service because it has not had an opportunity to fully review the agency´s comments, which were released last week.

“This is just one of the many comments we´ve received,” Lopez said.

Other state and federal agencies, along with tribes and environmental groups such as Idaho Rivers United and American Rivers, also have weighed in on the company´s draft application and filed comments with Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Lopez said the company will review all of the comments and respond to them when the company files its final relicensing application in July. Idaho Power already has spent $35 million on the relicensing process, Lopez said.

Citing aerial photo studies, the Forest Service said that from 1964 to 1982, the volume of sandbars in the Snake River below the dams has been reduced by 75 to 80 percent. The agency said loss of sandbars has resulted in further erosion of riparian areas, as well as recreational beaches.

The loss of sediment also has meant a loss of gravel beds that serve as spawning sites for salmon and other fish.

The Forest Service also criticized Idaho Power for concluding that passage of salmon and steelhead through the Hells Canyon dam complex wasn´t feasible at this time.

“The study was not peer-reviewed, and many assumptions concerning habitat were presented as fact,” the Forest Service review concluded. A peer-reviewed study is offered to other experts in the same field for comment before it is released.

The Forest Service said the fish passage assumptions used in the application were based on information that was gathered more than 40 years ago when Idaho Power first tried to provide ways for fish to get past the dams.

“Idaho Power´s study needs greater detail before it can be accepted as valid by the stakeholders,” the Forest Service review said.

The agency is recommending that Idaho Power put together and fund a “reintroduction work group” that would focus on finding solutions to move fish over the dams.

Sara Denniston Eddie, with Idaho Rivers United, said such a working group should have been started long ago.

“They´ve never adequately studied to really understand how to get fish over the dams,” Eddie said.

The original license for the project, issued in 1955, required Idaho Power to provide fish passage, but Eddie said Idaho Power stopped trying to accomplish fish passage after a few failed attempts in the 1960s.

Environmentalists maintain that the Hells Canyon project is responsible for blocking fall chinook salmon from more than 80 percent of their historic habitat.

Eddie said her organization also is concerned with water quality and changing temperatures that can affect the survival of hatching fish. The Forest Service also cited the temperature issue and suggested that Idaho Power study to see whether river temperatures below the Hells Canyon complex could be brought in line with temperatures above the complex.

Idaho Power is hoping to gain approval for a new 30-year license of the project, and Connie Kelleher of American Rivers says the utility owes it to the public to adequately address the effects of the project and provide responsible mitigation measures.

“A lot of the studies are geared to justify continued operations rather than giving an honest analysis of the impacts,” Kelleher said.

Despite raising concerns about Idaho Power´s application, Forest Service officials said it´s not their role to take a position for or against relicensing of the dam.

“Our goal is to evaluate adequacy of scientific studies and impacts to national lands and resources,” said Lynn Roehm, the hydropower coordinator for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. “At this stage of the game, our role is review and identify areas where we think there are deficiencies and offer ideas for improvement.”

This spring, Roehm said the Forest Service and other agencies will meet with Idaho Power officials to try to work through concerns that have been raised.

“We want to continue to work in a collaborative spirit,” he said.

To offer story ideas or comments, contact Ken Dey
kdey@idahostatesman.com or 377-6428

What’s at stake

The Forest Service´s review of Idaho Power´s draft application to relicense its Hells Canyon Dam complex pointed out a number of key issues the agency would like to be addressed:

• Fish passage: The Forest Service would like Idaho Power to form a work group to come up with options for moving salmon and steelhead over the dams in order to help restore the natural population that was disrupted when the dams were built.

• Water temperature: The dams cause fluctuations in water temperature that can negatively affect spawning. The Forest Service wants Idaho Power to present alternative ways to regulate the river´s temperature so it remains consistent above and below the dams.

• Fish habitat: Silt, sand and gravel, which in undammed rivers would create sandbars and other habitat, is being trapped behind the dams. Downstream fish depend on the gravel for spawning.

• Erosion control: Water passing through the dams without sediment has eroded existing sandbars, which have reduced wildlife habitat and could further erode beaches. The Forest Service wants Idaho Power to develop possible scenarios to mitigate the impact on existing sandbars.

Relicensing timeline

Idaho Power Co. started the Hells Canyon Dam complex in 1955 with an initial 50-year license. The company must now complete an application for a new 30-year license with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The process requires the company to complete a number of regulatory hurdles before a new license is granted. Here´s how it´s supposed to work:
• Early to mid-1990s: Idaho Power started the scientific studies required for the relicense application.

• September 2002: Idaho Power submitted 25,000-page draft relicensing application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The company said it spent approximately $35 million preparing the document.

• January 2003: Stakeholders in the dam relicensing process submitted comments to the draft document.

• Spring 2003: Government agencies such as the Forest Service will meet with Idaho Power to resolve concerns over the draft relicense.

• January-July 2003: Idaho Power will review comments, meet with agencies and prepare its final license application.

• July 2003: Idaho Power will submit final license application. The application will include revisions addressing comments from FERC and stakeholders on the draft application.

• Later (time not specified): FERC will conduct an environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement and release it to the public for review and comment.

• Still later: Based on its own assessments and results of the public review and comment, FERC would issue an order renewing the license. The license order would define how the hydropower project may be operated for power generation and other measures benefiting the public and the environment. If the license isn´t approved before Idaho Power´s 2005 expiration date, FERC can provide a renewable one-year extension of Idaho Power´s existing license while problem areas are addressed.




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