Feds Unveil Plans for Dam Re-Licensingby Julie Pence
Times-News, March 1, 2002
BOISE -- A 57-mile stretch of the mid-Snake River is not environmentally healthy, conservationists say.
And as Idaho Power Co. comes closer to completing the re-licensing process of four of the dams from Shoshone Falls to Bliss, now is the time for the company to plan for changes in its operations.
Idaho Power is not the main culprit in reducing water quality and aquatic health, said Tom Stuart of Idaho Rivers United. Agriculture has had a far greater impact.
"It's been said that the Snake River stops at Milner," he said Thursday.
Stuart attended a meeting of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Idaho Power officials, who held a hearing in Boise to get public comment on proposed improvements. Stuart said most of the stream flow from Milner, which is eight miles east of Murtaugh, to the Thousand Springs area that stretches to Bliss comes mostly from groundwater that breaks through the canyon.
That residual water is so precious in maintaining native aquatic life and wildlife in addition to maintaining a respectable quality of life for surrounding communities, that Idaho Power says it has spent more than $35 million on scientific studies to determine the impact of its dams and electrical generation facilities on those issues. Federal and state agencies are also requiring the company to come up with a viable river improvement plan as part of completing the re-licensing process that hasn't happened for more than 50 years.
Idaho Power presented four options at Thursday's meeting. One is called the "no-action alternative." That plan calls for the four dams to operate the same as it has for the past 15 years. That plan is actually the baseline against which Idaho Power evaluates the other alternatives.
A second option would keep Idaho Power operating the same as it has for the past 15 years, except that the company has purchased 625 acres of habitat next to the river. The properties include Bancroft Springs, Thousand Springs and Box Canyon.
A third alternative is called a "seasonal run-of-river." Instead of damming up the water during those three months, Idaho Power would allow a natural stream flow from March 15 through June 15. That would improve the spawning of the white sturgeon by 20 percent to 60 percent, a FERC study shows. The sturgeon is considered a "species of concern" by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. In addition, natural stream flow would help promote the re-establishment of five species of snail on the federal endangered species list that are found only in the mid-Snake.
But Stuart says his organization is recommending a fourth option. That alternative is called "year-round run-of-river."
"The best way to maintain the health of all the critters that live in the river is to let the stream flow naturally," Stuart said.
The FERC study indicates that a year-round natural flow would actually enable Idaho Power to generate more electricity though a slightly higher cost.
The run-of-river options would also include the maintenance of the properties the company has already purchased.
The alternatives are very general plans, but each includes many operations to improve the health of the river.
A comment period for interested parties will last until March 27.
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