Salmon passage, river temperatures still key obstacles to new Hells Canyon licenses

Idaho Power Co. is in the stretch run of getting a new long-term license for its three Hells Canyon dams, which provide about a third of the electricity its customers in Idaho and Oregon use.

Since the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission released its final environmental impact statement on its staff’s relicensing proposal, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid weighed in urging a reconsideration of requiring the utility to provide salmon passage at the dams.

Now the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants the FERC staff and of course, Idaho Power, to show why they don’t think they can afford to meet the federal standards for water temperatures below the dams.

Idaho Power told FERC that installing a temperature control structure at the Hells Canyon Dam would cost too much and not be that effective. This structure would pull the cold water from the bottom of the reservoir over the dam to bring the temperature of the Snake River down.

The temperature issue and the fish passage issue are the two big ticket items for the utility and its customers. Conservationists say that fish passage would only cost about $6 million, but they are only talking about a test program on one or two streams close to the dams.

Reid is talking about returning salmon to Nevada, which if possible, would cost hundreds of millions of dollars if not billions. The temperature control structure is also expensive but just how costly is one of the issues EPA is raising.

Other dams have found ways to control temperatures inexpensively and the EPA wants Idaho Power to show in detail why they can’t.

Idaho Power Co. has argued from day one that it should not be held solely responsible for the high temperatures in the river in the summer. The water flowing into its reservoirs, after all is already warm because for hundreds of miles the trees and brush that historically shaded the river have been removed. Irrigators have run the water through their systems and then dumped what’s left out the other side warmer and dirtier. So have city sewage plants and factories.

Critics suggest Idaho Power create a honking big fund to pay for reducing temperatures up stream and coincidently, cleaning up the river so it can once again support salmon.

Since Idaho Power’s critics have support from key Democrats like Reid, Idaho Power is hoping it can get its license before a new president, perhaps a Democrat, takes office.

This is a high-stakes game that is inherently tied with debate over the four lower Snake Dams debate downriver. The federal dams in Washington are far more of a problem for Idaho and eastern Oregon salmon than Idaho Power’s dams are.

Removing them would either take the pressure off Idaho Power or create conditions that would make fish passage at its dams more possible.

Salmon advocates have demonstrated they will squeeze Idaho’s water users and Idaho Power as far as they can to force them to join chorus for downstream dam removal. But the farmers and the utility have accurately replied that salmon advocates couldn’t deliver dam removal or certainty for their interests, even if they supported it.

All of this will come to a head in 2008 when the latest federal biological opinion on the federal Columbia and Snake River dams, scheduled to be rolled out later this month, is once again placed before U.S. District Judge James Redden for review. Idaho Power will also get its final reviews by FERC and probably a federal judge as well.

All this in the middle of a presidential campaign could cure the salmon fatigue the Pacific Northwest has suffered for so long.

1192114537 Salmon passage, river temperatures still key obstacles to new Hells Canyon licenses Idaho Statesman Copyright 2014 Idaho Statesman . All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.