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Idaho Senator's Dam Provisions Scrutinized

by Les Blumenthal, Herald Washington, D.C., Bureau
Tri-City Herald, May 12, 2003

WASHINGTON -- He's the National Hydropower Association's "legislator of the year." During the last campaign, he was one of the top Senate recipients of cash from the power companies. And, he's a staunch defender of his state's lowest-in-the-nation electric rates. (see Electric Utility Reports elecresi.htm, elecomme.htm, elecindu.htm)

And though he may be from Idaho, Republican Sen. Larry Craig has drafted a section of a national energy bill now on the Senate floor that could affect dams, utilities and endangered salmon runs throughout the Northwest.

Craig's language would streamline relicensing of dams -- an archaic process that nearly everyone agrees is seriously flawed. But Craig's proposal also would give utilities an opening to avoid the sometimes tough licensing conditions imposed by federal agencies to protect salmon and other fish and wildlife species.

While Craig's provisions have drawn little public attention, their fate is being closely watched by utilities and environmentalists. The House has included similar language in its energy bill. The White House supports the language.

"We think it is a moderate, responsible approach," said Mark Stover, a spokesman for the National Hydropower Association, which represents 140 utilities.

Environmentalists see it differently.

"This is an insidious, behind-the-scenes move that will have massive implications for salmon protection throughout the Northwest," said Connie Kelleher, an associate director in the Seattle office of American Rivers.

But over the next 15 years, the licenses for more than 18 nonfederal dams in Washington state expire -- dams that provide enough electricity to power seven cities the size of Seattle.

Nationally, the licenses for almost 300 projects in 37 states expire between now and 2018.

Utilities have long complained the relicensing process takes too long, is too complicated, costs too much and has become increasingly dominated by such agencies as the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Horror stories abound. For 25 years, Tacoma Power's efforts to secure a new license for its Cushman Project on the Skokomish River has been tied up before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the courts.

Yet if the Cushman project represents what's wrong with the current process, another Tacoma Power project, this one on the Cowlitz River, shows how the process can work.

After four years of negotiating with environmentalists, tribes, federal agencies and others, Tacoma agreed to spend $60 million to restore wild salmon and steelhead in what was once one of the Northwest's most productive river basins. In exchange, the groups agreed not to fight the Cushman relicensing.

Among the projects facing relicensing in the next few years are the Priest Rapids and Wanapum dams operated by the Grant County PUD. The two dams generate enough electricity to power two Seattle-sized cities and represent one of the largest federally licensed projects in the nation.

Christine Stallard, a Grant County spokeswoman, said the utility supports Craig's provision in the energy bill.

"It requires agencies to consider environmental, economic and other public effects before imposing conditions," she said.

Nowhere will Craig's proposal have a greater impact than his home state, where Idaho Power is seeking a new license for its three dams in Hells Canyon on the Snake River.

The three dams -- Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon -- comprise the largest federally licensed project in the nation.

Built in the 1960s, the dams block the Snake as it flows through the deepest gorge in North America. The original licenses required Idaho Power to provide fish passage for migrating salmon, but after early efforts were ineffective the utility gave up.

Once, more than 1 million salmon spawned upstream of the dams, said Kelleher of American Rivers. More than 23,000 square acres of prime spawning habitat was blocked by the dams, she said.

"The Hells Canyon complex is a perfect example of where fish passage is really needed and where the hydro bill is designed to prevent it from happening," she said.

Idaho Power officials, however, say "suitable" spawning habitat upstream from the dams no longer exists and, instead, the utility has agreed to spend $300 million on other fish mitigation measures.

"We have tried the collaborative process," said Idaho Power spokesman Dennis Lopez. "We have had some good input from environmentalists and the tribes. But in the final analysis we have to do what's right for our ratepayers."

Idaho Power officials, along with other utility executives, have lobbied Craig. During his 2002 campaign, Craig received more than $164,000 from electric utilities, including $7,000 from Idaho Power. Only two other senators received more from the electric industry than Craig, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

"He's been our champion for years," said the hydropower association's Stover.

Craig makes no apologies.

"I had my state in mind, not Idaho Power," he said.

Craig said his proposal would restore some sanity to a process that has become "phenomenally complicated."

Up until the mid-1980s, federal regulators routinely approved new dam licenses with little concern for fish or other environmental considerations. But then Congress approved legislation allowing the National Marine Fisheries Service -- now called National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries -- the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service to impose mandatory conditions protecting fish and wildlife.

Craig's language would allow utilities to propose alternatives. In evaluating those alternatives, the agencies would be required to consider not only environmental issues, but also power production, economic concerns, flood control and recreation.

If the agencies rejected a utility's alternative, the utility could appeal to the secretaries of the Interior, Commerce or Agriculture, depending on the agency involved. Outside groups would not have the right to appeal.

"Right now the agencies and the stakeholders have absolute authority," Craig said. "There was no way to balance it."

Craig's language has its critics on Capitol Hill.

"Clearly, the dam relicensing process is broken, but adding more bureaucracy and uncertainty to an already burdensome process is not the answer," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

Environmentalists say that if Craig's language were law, PacificCorp may never have agreed to demolish a dam on the White Salmon River. If Craig's provision were in effect, the utility may not have been required to install expensive fish ladders.

"Utilities block rivers with walls of concrete, and Larry Craig's bill will let them block salmon restoration with walls of red tape," Kelleher said.

Related Sites:
Utilities Grasp at Power by Blaine Harden, Washington Post, May 4, 2003

Les Blumenthal, Herald Washington, D.C., Bureau
Idaho Senator's Dam Provisions Scrutinized
Tri-City Herald, May 12, 2003

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