Environmentalists Walk Away
by Rocky Barker
Groups say firm isn't being open about fish studies
Four key environmental groups are walking away from talks with Idaho Power Co. on relicensing of the Hells Canyon dams.
A dispute with federal regulators prompted Idaho Power to quit sharing studies on the impact of the three dams on salmon and other aquatic resources. Environmentalists said the company was unilaterally changing the terms of a so-called collaborative process it began in 1996.
"Idaho Power is not willing to even discuss, let alone implement, important studies, such as how to protect fish from the impact of the dams," said Connie Kelleher of American Rivers, a national environmental group. "It's a waste of our time to continue to attend these meetings."
For 40 years, the three dams have generated the electricity that pumps irrigation water, runs factories, lights Boise and powers the growth of Idaho. Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon Dam, completed in 1967, together produce 737 megawatts of electricity annually, enough to light 464,000 homes. They are the main reason the company's 378,000 customers pay relatively lower rates, compared to others in the country.
The license to operate the three dams is up for renewal in 2005. Idaho Power's license application will be submitted in 2002.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will decide how much Idaho Power has to do to offset the impacts of the dam on salmon and other resources. If those costs are too high, the company might be forced to abandon the dams, Idaho Power Co. officials say.
Idaho Power has been seeking common ground with fish advocates and others on the terms of the license, which could be issued for up to 50 years.
But the listing of salmon as an endangered species has complicated the process. Under the Endangered Species Act, the commission is required to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service in a process that is separate from relicensing.
The discussions with the fisheries service had turned adversarial, prompting the company to delay the release of its fish studies until they are completed, said Craig Jones, Idaho Power Hells Canyon relicensing coordinator.
"This has kind of thrown a monkey wrench into our plans," Jones said.
That means Idaho Power will develop its proposals for offsetting the dam's negative effects on the fish internally, without involvement of the collaborative group.
"Idaho Power's actions make it clear that these discussions are nothing more than window dressing aimed at improving its public image," said Al McGlinsky of the Hells Canyon Preservation Council.
Jones disagrees. The participation of environmentalists and other groups in the development of the studies made them "broader and much deeper in context."
"The public has really benefited from this process because we've really generated a lot of information," Jones said.
When the dams were built, salmon were cut off from spawning grounds in the Snake River near Kuna, and even in the Boise River. After efforts to pass the salmon around the dams failed, the company built hatcheries to make up for the lost habitat.
But there's more at stake than salmon. Idaho Power also must offset the effects of the three dams on other wildlife, on recreation, water quality and other aquatic species. Anglers annually catch more than 3 million fish from Brownlee Reservoir, Idaho's most productive resident fishery.
And Hells Canyon remains one of the most important winter ranges for elk and deer in Idaho and Oregon. Brownlee also provides flood control for Portland and other riverside communities. Thousands of acres of previous winter range were lost when the canyon was filled with water.
In considering Idaho Power's dam licenses, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will have to balance the costs of electricity against the needs of fish, wildlife, recreation and communities. The electricity shortage in the West has raised the stakes.
The Hells Canyon dams are the last of eight dams on the Snake River that Idaho Power must get relicensed by 2010. The company has been working on relicensing since the early 1990s.
Avista Corp., formerly known as Washington Water Power Co., reached a collaborative settlement with 38 private and government organizations over new licenses for its Noxon Rapids and Cabinet Gorge dams on the Clark Fork River upstream from Lake Pend Oreille in northern Idaho. It provided passage for endangered bull trout, increased minimum flows from the dams and agreed to spend $200 million over 45 years restoring the river.
"We know collaboration, and this is not collaboration," said Scott Yates of Trout Unlimited. "The Idaho Power process provides little semblance of the give-and-take necessary to both understand the complex nature of the resource impacts and eventually reach science- and consensus-based decisions."
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