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Hells Canyon Dams will be Scrutinized

by Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, August 11, 2004

Government will study effects on salmon, steelhead populations

Following years of delay, the federal government has decided to measure the effects Idaho Power Co. dams in Hells Canyon have on protected salmon and steelhead populations.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission said Friday it will begin consulting with officials at the Fisheries Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to determine if operation of Hells Canyon, Brownlee and Oxbow dams is harming threatened and endanger salmon and steelhead.

Environmental groups asked the agency to study the dams' effects on protected fish in 1997, but the request was neither granted nor denied.

The groups, led by American Rivers, sued last year and in June a three-judge panel from the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled the energy commission must respond to the petition.

Friday, the commission said it agreed with the environmental groups and would begin talks with the fishery agencies.

According to Emily Carter of the energy commission in Washington, D.C., the commission will meet Sept. 9 with the company, the federal agencies and interested parties, such as the environmental groups and Indian tribes, to begin the process.

"We are really excited the FERC is finally going to consult," said Sara Denniston Eddie, an attorney with Boise-based Advocates of the West, which argued the court case. "We have been waiting for this decision for almost eight years."

Idaho Power Co. received a 50-year license from the energy commission in 1955 that allows it to operate the three dams on the Snake River in Hells Canyon. When the dams were built, they prevented salmon and steelhead from reaching upriver spawning habitat.

In the early 1990s, three species of Snake River salmon that use the river below the dams were listed as threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The act requires the federal government to measure the effects of any action it takes that might harm listed species and to propose steps to lessen or eliminate the negative effects.

Salmon advocates argue the dams in Hells Canyon effect surviving salmon downstream by altering river flows and water temperatures.

Rob Masonis, Northwest director of American Rivers, said Tuesday the long delay by the commission has slowed salmon and steelhead recovery.

"The history of the salmon and steelhead recovery effort in the Columbia Basin is fraught with lengthy delays and inactivity. This is just another example of that," he said.

"Every year we have conditions in the river that are harmful, the populations suffer, and that is a deficit that has to be made up down the road."

The Sept. 9 meeting is expected to outline measures that could be taken at the dams to help fish. Rick Eichstaedt, an attorney for the Nez Perce Tribe, said those measures could include releasing water from the dams when it can most help fish.

Idaho and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation release up to 427,000 acre feet of water from the upper Snake River basin each year to help flush young salmon downriver. But Idaho Power Co. is not obligated to pass the water as soon as it enters the Hells Canyon complex of dams and reservoirs.

"The water from the upper Snake River is often held in Brownlee Reservoir and isn't released by Idaho Power until later in the summer, when the economic benefit is greater for them," said Eichstaedt.

The decision by the commission pertains to the 1955 license that expires next year. The commission is considering a new 30-year license that is not expected to be finalized for several years. The dams will likely continue to operate under the old license until a new one is issued.

Eddie, of Advocates of the West, said the commission will be required to consult with NOAA Fisheries over the new license when it is issued. She expects those consultations to include studies of fish passage at the dams as well as the addition of technology that would allow dam operators to control the temperature of water released by the dams.

Spokesmen for Idaho Power Co. and NOAA Fisheries did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday.

Eric Barker
Hells Canyon Dams will be Scrutinized
Lewiston Tribune, August 11, 2004

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