Salmon Issues Led Power Company
by Jennifer Sandmann
TWIN FALLS -- Missing from the state's historic water agreement that promises protections for Idaho water users from endangered salmon and tribal fishing rights is Idaho Power Co.
The state's largest utility operates 17 hydropower plants on the Snake River and its tributaries, including the company's biggest hydropower complex in Hells Canyon.
And that's where this story takes place.
Hells Canyon cuts a gorge nearly 8,000 feet down at its deepest point -- deeper than the Grand Canyon. It runs for more than 100 miles with much of the canyon delineating Idaho's border with Oregon.
Brownlee Dam impounds the Snake River for 58 miles in Hells Canyon. Downstream are Oxbow and Hells Canyon dams.
Combined, all three have the capacity to generate nearly two-thirds of Idaho Power's hydropower, but Oxbow and Hells Canyon dams don't store vast amounts of water like Brownlee.
It's the temperature of water released from the massive Brownlee Reservoir that becomes a pivotal issue when talking about how the power company fits into the grand scheme of recovering endangered fall Chinook salmon. Fall Chinook spawn in the fall.
Many agencies and organizations want Idaho Power to evaluate methods for adjusting Brownlee water releases to shape water temperatures that they say ultimately affect salmon survival. It would require major capital expenses by the company.
"The reality is they are looking at us to resolve an issue that is really a federal issue," said Dennis Lopez, an Idaho Power spokesman. "We believe it is a federal responsibility to deal with issues surrounding those lower Snake River dams."
Water rights settlement
The federal government operates four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington state. The dams block salmon and steelhead from reaching spawning habitat in central Idaho.
Idaho Power hoped to resolve salmon issues surrounding its dams through Idaho's massive water rights case -- the Snake River Basin Adjudication. The Nez Perce Tribe used the SRBA to claim virtually all of the water in the river. The tribe said its historic fishing treaty rights were useless because river conditions had deteriorated salmon and steelhead populations.
Idaho Power was an instigator of the negotiations that led to the agreement in principle between the state, tribe and federal government over Idaho water, Idaho Deputy Attorney General Clive Strong said at a public meeting earlier this month in Twin Falls. The agreement requires approval by Congress, the Idaho Legislature, the tribe's governing council and the state water court before it's finalized.
But Idaho Power in the end did not sign the agreement. The company sent a letter to federal dam regulators two days after the agreement was announced last month in Boise.
"Unfortunately, we must inform you that we were unable to conclude these discussions to the mutual satisfaction of both parties within the timing of the SRBA," the company's letter said.
The company said it planned to continue to meet with NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency responsible for salmon recovery.
"NOAA Fisheries and IPC continue to believe that progress was made through the time and effort expended in the context of the SRBA discussions and hope to build upon those discussions under the ESA consultation process," the company's letter said.
The company's departure won't stop the Nez Perce agreement from advancing, Strong said. But he said Idaho Power ultimately is part of the complete Idaho solution. Should issues surrounding Hells Canyon remain unresolved, a final Nez Perce settlement could be reopened down the road. And that could affect the amount of water Idaho must contribute for salmon recovery.
As a safeguard for Idaho water users, the agreement includes a provision that would require the federal government to look at other options before it comes back to Idaho for more salmon solutions. And the tribal water claims could never be resurrected should the salmon recovery part of the agreement be reopened, Strong said.
A number of agencies and organizations have asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to require Idaho Power to consider temperature as it prepares to relicense the Hells Canyon dams for another 50 years.
Fall Chinook spawn downstream from Idaho Power's Hells Canyon to Lewiston, said Ritchie Graves, a NOAA Fisheries biologist in Portland.
NOAA Fisheries biologists believe that cooler temperatures released from Brownlee Reservoir in the spring delay juvenile salmon development and their migration to the Pacific Ocean, Graves said. Because of Brownlee's length and depth, water released during the spring after Idaho emerges from winter is cooler than the water flowing into the reservoir that time of year.
NOAA Fisheries biologists believe that delayed migration results in higher salmon mortality in the downstream federal dams than otherwise might occur, because river flows later in the season can be reduced and temperatures increased, Graves said.
"We have asked Idaho Power to evaluate the efficacy of a selective withdrawal structure in the turbine intakes. It would let you choose within the reservoir where you wanted to withdraw water," Graves said.
That would allow the company to withdraw warmer water in the spring, he said. It's been done on a number of federal dams. Cost estimates range anywhere from $10 million to $100 million.
Idaho Power says its own studies show that its dams don't delay juvenile migration.
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs