Utilities Grasp at Powerby Blaine Harden, Washington Post Staff Writer
Washington Post, May 4, 2003
Proposed Rule on River Dams Angers Environmentalists
HELLS CANYON, Idaho -- In a long-running contest to control the nation's dammed-up rivers, owners of hydroelectric dams are close to achieving a come-from-behind victory over environmentalists, federal fish agencies and Indian tribes.
Power companies, after two decades of losing ground, may be on the brink of saving billions of dollars in the operation of their dams while regaining greater control of rivers from New England to the Pacific Northwest. The terms of the utilities' triumph, if it comes to pass, are contained in a little-noticed provision of the voluminous energy bill that is to reach the Senate floor on Monday. The bill is supported by the Bush administration and has already cleared the House.
The father of the hydropower provision is Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), who last year received more money from electric utilities than from any other industry.
Craig said his bill is an attempt to "restore balance" in the management of U.S. rivers.
"The people of my state want me to sustain its hydropower base," said Craig, adding that he is proud of the support he receives from electric utilities. "What we are really looking for is operational flexibility."
To understand what Craig and the power companies are close to achieving, it is useful to join Elmer Crow, an elder in the Nez Perce tribe, on a doleful journey down the Snake River through Hells Canyon, the deepest gorge in the United States.
"If you look at what's happened to this river and you look at this new bill, you can see why I am one bitter Indian," Crow said last week as he boarded a yellow raft to run the canyon's white-water rapids.
Crow is 59, and his memory reaches back to a time before dams. When Crow was a boy, the annual run of fall chinook salmon in the Snake River numbered about a quarter-million adult fish, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Last year, the run numbered about 3,900.
The federal government now lists fall chinook as endangered. Five major salmon species native to the Snake River are threatened, endangered or extinct -- an extraordinary decline in less than 50 years, one that federal fisheries biologists blame primarily on dams.
In this canyon, the Idaho Power Co. wants to renew its federal license to run three highly profitable dams, which have no fish ladders and which block 80 percent of the habitat for fall chinook. The license will expire in 2005.
The canyon is also where the Nez Perce, federal agencies responsible for protecting fish and environmental groups have planned to fight the company's license renewal. They say they hope to compel Idaho Power to treat the Snake more like a living river and less like an on-off switch.
The lever they had intended to use against the power company is the labyrinthine process for renewing dam licenses.
For most of the past century, license renewal was a routine procedure, with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rubber-stamping a utility's plan to continue damming a river and altering its flow to make power.
But over the past 20 years, as scientists have detailed the environmental costs of dams and public attitudes toward them have changed, the license renewal process has been seized on by fish advocates. With the blessing of federal courts, they have used it to force power companies to pay for the costly reengineering of dams to allow fish passage, as well as for improvements in fish habitat.
In several cases, companies have agreed to knock down dams. In Washington state, for instance, a private utility called PacifiCorp decided recently that it was cheaper to spend $17 million to demolish a dam on the White Salmon River than it was to build the fish ladders demanded by fish advocates during the license renewal process.
What makes the licensing lever especially important for fish advocates -- and especially irksome to power companies -- is the accelerating pace of dam re-licensing across the United States.
The licenses, valid for between 30 and 50 years, are expiring in droves, particularly in the Northwest, where hydropower accounts for about 80 percent of the electricity supply. In the next 15 years, licenses will expire for more than half of all nonfederal hydroelectric dams -- 296 projects that provide electricity to 30 million homes in 37 states.
In nearly every recent license renewal, the hydropower industry has found itself on the defensive. Power companies are being forced to pay for the restoration of fish runs that scientists say dams helped destroy. The industry says a typical dam license now takes 10 years and costs at least $10 million. Some license renewals have cost $50 million or more.
"The process is broken," said Julie Kiel, director of dam licensing for Portland General Electric in Oregon, before a House subcommittee this spring. "Almost every hydropower stakeholder wants to see it repaired."
That is why power companies are delighted with the hydropower provision tucked into the energy bill.
"For the past 15 years, we have been too focused on the environmental impacts of dams," said Mark R. Stover, director of governmental affairs for the National Hydropower Association. "We feel this legislation is a more moderate and responsible approach."
Senior officials at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission strongly support the bill.
"This will increase the coherence and accountability of the process," said J. Mark Robinson, director of the commission's office of energy projects.
If the hydropower provision becomes law, power companies will be granted special rights to appeal conditions on dam operations imposed by federal agencies such as the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Services and the Forest Service.
In the past, those conditions were mandatory. They often have forced utilities to spill water over dams for fish passage, rather than run it through turbines to make electricity.
The bill would give power companies, at the end of the license renewal process, a right to submit their own alternative plan for operating dams.
Under the proposed law, experts in the fish agencies would have to evaluate a dam operator's alternative not only for its impact on fish. They would have to weigh environmental concerns against energy needs, recreation value, flood control and air quality issues.
If the agencies reject a dam operator's alternative plan as bad for fish, the bill would allow the operators to appeal to the secretaries of interior, commerce or agriculture. Such appeals could take as long as five years, according to congressional staff members, during which time the power companies could continue to operate their dams.
Under the bill, other stakeholders in a river, such as tribes and environmental groups, would not have similar rights to appeal.
"This is an under-the-radar kind of deal that is going to bite people in the West, in New England and anywhere you got water falling," said Michael C. Blum, a law professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., and an expert on hydropower licensing. "Because this is such an arcane area of the law and because not many people have been paying attention, the power companies have been able to get their own way."
The hydropower licensing law was written in 1920, Blum said, and the hydropower industry had no problem with it for nearly six decades -- until fish advocates figured out how to use the law in a way that cost the industry money.
Cecil Andrus, a four-time Democratic governor of Idaho, former interior secretary under President Jimmy Carter and caustic critic of the hydropower industry, said the power companies have a poor environmental record.
"For God's sake, you don't put the fox in charge of the henhouse," Andrus said. "Have you noticed what they have done to salmon in the past 100 years? The companies don't want to be responsible for the mitigation of problems they created. There is a difference between being a pig and a hog. This is being a hog. The power companies want it all."
Craig, Idaho's senior senator, received $164,236 in donations from power companies last year, more than from any other industry, according to figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Idaho Power contributed $7,000 last year to Craig, who was named "legislator of the year" by the National Hydropower Association.
Several other sponsors of the bill, including its chief sponsor in the House, Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), have received substantial campaign donations from electric utilities. Power companies were the second-largest donors to Towns, who last year received $53,824 from electric utilities, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. There are no hydropower projects in Brooklyn, Towns's district.
Officials at Idaho Power said the company has long urged Craig and other lawmakers to support dam licensing legislation that would "balance" the power of fish advocates against the country's energy needs. This year, however, they said the company was preoccupied with its upcoming license renewal and did not lobby Congress for passage of the hydropower bill. But a company spokesman said there is "nothing objectionable" in the bill.
On the Snake River last week, Elmer Crow found many reasons to object to the legislation -- and to the power company that talks about "balance" in the operation of its Hells Canyon dams.
"Look at what they do to this river every day," Crow said.
It was early afternoon, and the river was high, loud and ornery. But by evening, after Crow had run the river's big rapids and set up camp, the river began to shrink. By midnight, the flow of water in the Snake was cut by about half.
Idaho Power was yo-yoing the river, spilling water to generate electricity during the day, when demand and prices are highest, and reining in the river at night.
The Nez Perce, federal fisheries biologists and environmental groups have complained for years about Idaho Power's "ramping" of the river. Although Idaho Power disagrees, the dam opponents say the practice scours sand and fine gravel out of Hells Canyon, making it difficult for the few remaining salmon that spawn below the dams to find a habitat for depositing their eggs. They also say the daily ramping of the river harms incubating salmon eggs and disorients newly hatched salmon.
"When I hear the power company talk about balance, I just get so mad," Crow said. "When they generate power and yo-yo this river, they are hurting fish. Nearly all the fish are already gone. Where's the balance in that?"
Idaho Senator's Dam Provisions Scrutinized by Les Blumenthal, Tri-City Herald, May 12, 2003
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