Activists Pleased with Dam Decisionby Ken Dey
Idaho Statesman, August 12, 2004
FERC orders studies of fish in Hells Canyon
It took seven years, but conservation groups finally have a commitment from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to take a closer look at how Idaho Power Co.'s Hells Canyon dams affect threatened or endangered Snake River salmon and steelhead.
"It's high time that FERC looked at what impact the project is having on listed fish and make adjustments to whatever is needed," said Sara Eddie, an attorney with Advocates of the West who is representing Idaho Rivers United.
Idaho Rivers United was one of eight groups that filed a petition with FERC in 1997 asking that the agency consult with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration Fisheries (also known as the National Marine Fisheries Service) to ensure that operations at the Hells Canyon dams do not jeopardize the continued existence of threatened or endangered species.
The company's 50-year licenses were granted in 1955, before the establishment of the Endangered Species Act, but the groups say the act required that the existing licenses be reviewed to see if operations were harming threatened or endangered fish.
Eddie said the review of the licenses could lead to operational changes at the dams to better protect salmon. A similar review is under way as part of Idaho Power's new relicensing effort for the three dams, but she said any changes recommended in the relicensing wouldn't take place until a new license was issued.
Although the current license expires in 2005, Eddie said it could be five to 10 years after it expires before a new license with changes is granted.
In the interim, FERC would likely allow the company to operate the dams under the old license with no required operational changes. But Eddie said salmon and steelhead don't have the luxury of waiting for any changes in a new license.
"FERC has practiced delay and avoidance and tried to do everything it could to not take action, but it requires quick action to protect species that are on the brink of extinction," Eddie said.
The commission finally approved the 7-year-old request last week, but only after the U.S Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said last month that the agency had 45 days to respond to the petition.
The appeals court said the environmental groups "are entitled to an end to FERC's marathon round of administrative keep-away."
In its Aug. 6 order, the commission said it regretted "the lack of clarity" that may have resulted from its decision not to answer the group's request directly.
The commission said it sent a letter to NOAA Fisheries on July 7 saying it would like to formally resume consultation with the agency in an effort to determine the impacts the three Hells Canyon dams have on salmon and what, if any, changes might need to be made in the operation of the dams. An initial meeting between the two agencies and Idaho Power is planned in Boise on Sept. 9.
Idaho Power spokesman Dennis Lopez said the company would have to wait and see what if any changes the NOAA Fisheries might recommend before commenting.
"Until then we won't have a clear picture of what lies ahead," Lopez said.
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