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Power Company Pushes to Prove its Case

by Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, October 5, 2003

Utility wants license renewal to use dams for next generation

Nearly every state and federal agency and Indian tribe with a stake in the Snake River and Hells Canyon are requesting more studies on the effects of the Idaho Power Co. dams there.

The agencies are asking the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to compel Idaho Power to conduct more studies on the environmental and recreational effects of Oxbow, Brownlee and Hells Canyon dams in the Snake's middle reach.

The private power company's license to operate the dams expires in 2005, and the company is asking the federal government for permission to continue to use the river to produce power for the next 30 to 50 years.

Idaho Power submitted a 36,000-page draft application in July. The application included several scientific studies on the impacts of the three dams.

But the agencies say the power company came up short in areas such as fish passage, water quality and the downstream management of sediments.

Scott Grunder of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Boise says many of the agencies want the power company to run more computer models of potential flow schemes or operations at the dams.

He says the company ran only two scenarios through its models. But a working group of scientists came up with nine scenarios it wants tested. Without running the models, Grunder says the agencies won't be able to recommend a series of voluntary and mandatory actions meant to lessen the effects of the dams on fish and wildlife.

In March, Grunder said, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is going to ask for recommendations or mandatory terms and conditions of operating the dams. "Without that information, we won't be able to do a very good job of making those recommendations."

Federal fisheries agencies can compel the company to take measures to improve fish passage. There are no fish passage mechanisms in place at any of the three dams.

State agencies with authority over water quality can also dictate mandatory measures the company must take to protect water quality.

Some federal land management agencies, such as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, may also force the company to take measures to protect public resources. Other agencies, such as the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, may ask the energy commission to require the company to alter its operations in order to protect fish and wildlife habitat.

The Fish and Game Department is one of many agencies that want the company to study fish passage at the dams. Others agencies asking for fish passage studies include the Nez Perce Tribe, Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

When they were built in the 1950s and 1960s, the dams cut salmon and steelhead off from all of their spawning habitat above the dams.

The company contends that several obstacles make the prospects of reintroducing salmon and steelhead above the dams a long shot. But the agencies say the company is asking for a 30- to 50-year license, and during that time water quality and habitat could be recovered to the point reintroduction becomes possible.

"What we are really trying to do is get all the information together so we can have an intelligent conversation about this," said Ritchie Graves of NOAA at Portland, Ore.

The Nez Perce Tribe wants the company to study the possibility of constructing a device that could control the temperature of water releases from the dams. Such a device, known as a selector gauge, is installed on some dams, such as Dworshak Dam at Ahsahka. The gauge would allow the company to release cold water during the summer to help reduce temperatures in the Lower Snake River, which sometimes becomes so warm it harms fish.

Graves said his agency also wants the company to do a better job of studying how the dams affect the flow of sediment downriver. Many people contend the dams stop the movement of gravel and sand, which in turn reduces beaches and gravel riverbeds favored by fall chinook for spawning.

"We just want some assurance that the material fall chinook need to spawn is going to be maintained for the next 30 to 50 years," Graves said.

Dennis Lopez, a spokesman for Idaho Power, could not be reached for comment Friday. But in the past, Lopez has said the company believes the studies that produced more than 36,000 pages are adequate.

Other agencies in the process have questioned the quality of some of the company's studies. For example Bob Heinith, a biologist with the Inter-tribal Fish Commission, says the number of pages produced doesn't mean the studies are necessarily good.

"When you dive into the pages, it appears to be for the most part a lot of qualitative fluff, and the substance is hard to find," he said.

Officials from the energy commission are in the process of evaluating the requests for additional studies and are preparing to ask the public what it thinks should be studied. A decision about the studies will likely be made in January, according to Alan Mitchnick, the Hells Canyon Re-licensing team leader for the agency at Washington, D.C.

Eric Barker
Power Company Pushes to Prove its Case
Lewiston Tribune, October 5, 2003

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