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At last, Idaho Power Joins the Breaching Discussion

by Editorial Board
Our View, The Idaho Statesman, June 13, 2001

Idaho Power isn't taking a stand on dam breaching.

But in the wake of an ill-conceived federal plan to grab Idaho water for salmon recovery, the state's largest electric utility is willing to reopen the debate over tearing down four dams on the lower Snake River.

That's a belated move for Idaho Power -- but the right one. We hope it leads to a renewed look at dam breaching.

Idaho Power is understandably nervous about a plan from the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency that oversees salmon recovery in the Northwest.

NMFS wants Idaho Power to relinquish some 129 billion gallons of water at its Brownlee Dam, on the Idaho-Oregon border, upstream from Hells Canyon. The goal is to help endangered fall chinook salmon migrate to the ocean.

NMFS officials are worried that the drought is slowing migration. They say they aren't asking for much more water than Idaho Power has provided in the past.

Idaho Power has cooperated with the flush but was compensated for the water it relinquished. This time, NMFS wants the water without offering compensation.

It's unclear how this might affect Idaho Power's 384,000 customers, who will already pay higher bills this summer.

Idaho Power officials are more concerned with the long-term precedent. They worry the plan will give NMFS control over how Idaho Power operates dams, just as its Hells Canyon hydro complex comes up for relicensing.

And the company says NMFS wants the water only to shuttle salmon past the federal government's four lower Snake River dams in eastern Washington, below Brownlee and Hells Canyon.

"There's a lot at stake," said Greg Panter, vice president of public affairs for IdaCorp, Idaho Power's parent company. "Our state's water is out there."

But this puts Idaho Power in the midst of the divisive debate over dam breaching. And Panter, no novice when it comes to Idaho politics, is careful. He says any breaching decision should be made by people downriver -- a good tack, considering that Idaho Power doesn't serve any customers north of Riggins.

If Idaho Power were only railing about a federal water grab, political allies would be easy to come by. At the basic level, the company is arguing a long-held Western position -- the idea that states should have control over water.

But the issue is much bigger, and much more complicated.

The Hells Canyon hydro complex, up for relicensing in 2005, can power close to 500,000 homes. That's almost three times as much juice as Idaho Power hopes to get from the controversial natural-gas-powered plant it hopes to build in Middleton. The complex is an indispensible power source, so Idaho Power is understandably concerned about future operations.

And in defending that power complex against a salmon plan Idaho Power links to the lower Snake dams, the company inevitably reopens the heated breaching debate.

We have favored breaching since 1997; we believe it protects Idaho's long-term interests. Idaho's political leadership has uniformly opposed breaching, and community leaders in Lewiston vehemently oppose breaching dams that have furnished their town with an ocean port.

Give Idaho Power credit for finally acknowledging a need to talk about breaching. It's a debate that, regrettably, the company has sidestepped in the past.

"But we're damned well engaged in it now," Panter said.

Idaho leaders need to be equally engaged in this discussion.

Related Links:
Feds Want Idaho Water for Salmon by Rocky Barker, The Idaho Statesman, 6/8/01
Biological Opinion - Federal Salmon Plan

Editorial Board
At last, Idaho Power Joins the Breaching Discussion
The Idaho Statesman, June 13, 2001

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