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Effort Launched to Amend Hydro Relicensing Provision

by CBB Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin - June 6, 2003

Two leading Democratic senators this week announced an effort to amend an energy bill provision reforming the federal hydroelectric dam relicensing process because it would weaken protection for salmon and other fish.

They were joined by representatives of Northwest Indian tribes, who said the measure would reduce their ability to participate in the Federal Energy and Regulatory Commission process on an equal footing with dam owners. They said dams were the biggest threat to survival of endangered salmon.

"If this amendment doesn't succeed, we're on a head-on collision with the utility people and the industry," Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, Olympia, Wash., said Wednesday at a Capitol Hill press conference with the two senators.

Frank said tribes have staff biologists and other expertise and have been able to negotiate agreements with dam owners under the current relicensing system.

The Senate resumed its sporadic debate on comprehensive energy legislation this week with no end in sight. It is uncertain when senators will debate the hydroelectric relicensing issue.

When it does, an alternative to the controversial section will be offered by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., ranking Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, the Democratic leader on the Indian Affairs Committee.

Bingaman said sponsors of the alternative agree that the relicensing process needs to be reformed but "in the right way." The current provision, which passed the House last month as part of its energy bill, has several problems, he said.

It would preclude states, tribes and others from participating in the fish and wildlife mitigation process on an equal footing with dam owners, and it would weaken protection of federal and tribal lands and of fish, he said. Only the license applicant would have the right to appeal a government agency decision, for example. Also, the additional steps for federal agencies to follow in setting conditions for renewal would delay the process, Bingaman said.

"Somehow they forgot the Indians, so we're going to change that," Inouye vowed.

Despite treaties and court decisions giving many tribes fishing rights and control of certain water bodies, the bill would treat them like "second class citizens," Howard Funke, attorney for the Coeur d'Alene Tribes in northern Idaho said. "It's unfairly weighted in favor of the industry."

Other opponents of the bill are 25 state attorneys general, including Christine Gregoire of Washington state and Hardy Myers of Oregon; the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies; and sport fishing and environmental groups.

The Democratic amendment, which was earlier defeated in the Senate energy committee, would substitute a relicensing reform compromise that passed the House last year.

In response to the criticism, Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and the hydropower industry said opponents mischaracterized the bill's relicensing changes.

"The hydropower provision in my bill fully preserves every opportunity for public input," Domenici said in a statement. "Our fish, our wildlife, our water ways and our air are fully protected."

He said existing environmental laws, including the NEPA process, are preserved and that the final authority rests with federal agencies that are tasked with the protection of our environment, wildlife and fish.

Craig said the bill follows current law under which federal agencies determine what conditions on a dam or its operation constitute "adequate protection" of the resource. He said the Democratic amendment would create a new "arbitrary environmental standard" for alternative fishway and other conditions.

"Our legislation holds the agencies accountable and provides balance to the process. The Bingaman amendment invites conflict and ties the hands of the secretaries of the agencies," said Craig.

Currently, federal and state fish and wildlife and land management agencies largely determine environmental and fish passage requirements, which are then imposed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as conditions for obtaining 30-to-50-year-long federal permits.

The primary change under the current energy bill would allow dam owners to propose less costly alternatives to mandatory conditions and have them accepted by federal agencies if they meet basic requirements. Dam owners could appeal if their proposals were rejected.

The Democratic compromise would allow any party to a licensing proceeding to propose alternatives to the resource and fishway prescriptions made by the resource agencies. Federal agencies would have to accept the alternative if it provided the same level of protection for resources, fish, and wildlife and either cost less to implement or would result in more efficient operation of the hydroelectric facility.

In addition, it would required agencies to establish a process to expeditiously resolve disputes.

CBB Staff
Effort Launched to Amend Hydro Relicensing Provision
Columbia Basin Bulletin, June 6, 2003

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