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Hell Breaking Loose in Hells Canyon

by Donovan Bramwell
Idaho Falls Post Register, October 5, 2003

Idaho Power Co. may not be able to do without its three dams in Hells Canyon.
But people who want healthy fish, clean water, abundant wildlife

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a revised, shortened, updated release of an article published a few months ago.

Idaho Power Company's Hells Canyon Complex (Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon dams) is up for relicensing by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2005; the original 50-year license is about to expire. I hope this particular relicensing process is anything but routine. FERC should deny Idaho Power the new license and demand that the dams be removed.

In the original license application, Idaho Power promised to mitigate the adverse environmental effects of the dams, including the maintenance of existing salmon and steelhead runs. Time passed, mitigation strategies failed or proved inadequate, and unforeseen consequences arose. We now know that the environmental sacrifices related to Idaho Power's Hells Canyon Complex are enormous, and mostly impossible to mitigate; all this for a relatively small quantity of electricity. Obvious are the loss of important fish and wildlife habitat and the loss of the salmon and steelhead runs. More subtle are the degradation of downstream water quality and the damage to the riverbed in canyon below the third dam.

Contrary to popular belief, the three dams do not provide a large, irreplaceable supply of electricity. During the past two years, less than one-third of Idaho Power's electricity production came from the Hells Canyon Complex.

Most new power plants are fired by natural gas. For example, between May 2001 and July 2002, 17 new power projects came online in California alone, representing new production of 4,623 megawatts, all fired by natural gas. Modern technology, economic considerations and environmental considerations have combined to make natural gas the energy source of choice for most new production of electricity.

In contrast, the 12-year average output of the Hells Canyon Complex is a mere 618 megawatts. This amount of electricity is routinely produced in gas-fired plants by turbines representing the equivalent of 11 jet engines, less than it takes to fly three Boeing 747s. During the past two years, with lower-than-normal flows in the river, the average production was less than 500 megawatts.

If Idaho Power were to apply today for a license to construct and operate the Hells Canyon Complex, do it with the benefit of the hindsight they have now and do it with total candor, here's what the application would say:

"We propose to inundate 12,000 to 18,000 acres in a 90-mile stretch of free-flowing river, destroy the riparian wildlife habitat along its banks, wash to bedrock and metaphorically sterilize a living river channel in the deepest canyon in North America, degrade the downstream water quality with excessively warm temperatures and detrimental concentrations of dissolved gases, destroy important habitat and obstruct migration opportunities for two rare native fish species (bull trout and sturgeon), destroy irreplaceable winter feeding grounds for thousands of deer, elk and bighorn sheep, and completely eliminate wild salmon and steelhead populations in a huge watershed, so that we can avoid building and operating a 40-acre gas-fired power plant driven by the equivalent of 11 jet engines. May we proceed?"

I think FERC would say, "Not only no, but hell no."

In 2005, FERC has a chance to say no.

(Electricity production data and jet engine analogies cited here were provided by Reed Burkholder of Boise.)

Donovan Bramwell, a Libertarian political activist, works as a technical writer in Idaho Falls and operates a small farm near Lewisville. He is one of six local columnists who appear Sunday on a rotating basis.
Hell Breaking Loose in Hells Canyon
Post Register, October 5, 2003

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