Idaho, Oregon reach agreement on hydroelectric project

Idaho Power has been trying to obtain a new 50-year license for its Hells Canyon Complex.

By Keith Ridler / Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho — Idaho and Oregon have reached an agreement on a hydroelectric project on the Snake River that requires an Idaho utility to spend about $312 million on water quality and habitat improvements.

Idaho Republican Gov. Brad Little and Oregon Democratic Gov. Kate Brown in separate news releases announced the agreement Monday.

“This long-awaited agreement supplies clean, affordable energy for Idahoans, improves water quality, and provides additional fish for recreational and tribal ceremonial purposes,” Little said.

“This agreement benefits the communities of Eastern Oregon, since we know what’s good for water, habitat, and fish is good for people,” Brown said.

Idaho Power has been trying to obtain a new 50-year license for its Hells Canyon Complex from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission after the old one expired in 2005, and it’s been operating on annual licenses.

But the utility has been caught in the middle of a fight between the two states. Oregon insisted on returning federally protected salmon and steelhead above the dams. Idaho officials didn’t want the fish above the dams because that could force expensive restoration work in environmentally degraded agricultural areas.

Idaho won, but Oregon appeared to get some compensation. Idaho Power will spend about $12 million in eastern Oregon tributaries. Idaho Power will also spend roughly $300 million as part of the Snake River Stewardship Program on fish, water and habitat. The agreement also calls for fish passage to be considered again 20 years into the new license.

Brett Dumas, environmental affairs director as Idaho Power, said ratepayers will pick up the bill that will be spread over the 50-year license when it’s renewed. Essentially, the $300 million is an offset to pay for harm to salmon caused by the dams, and in particular water exiting the dams that is warmer than allowed under federal standards.

“We’re pretty excited to get past this and move on to hopefully where we can do a lot of projects on the ground,” he said.

The next step is for each state to complete certifications for the Hells Canyon Complex and send them to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Both states have already taken public comments on drafts and are expected to issue final documents by early this summer.

On another front for relicensing, Idaho Power sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year seeking to force that agency to act on a request by the state of Idaho to modify water temperature standards below a hydroelectric project where federally protect fall chinook salmon reproduce.

Dumas said the agency has responded and now NOAA Fisheries is considering a possible analysis of how the dams harm salmon and orcas, which feed on salmon produced in the Columbia River Basin.

“We’re probably at the best not looking at a final license until at least 2022,” Dumas said.

Idaho Power supplies electricity to nearly 534,000 customers in southern Idaho and eastern Oregon. The Hells Canyon Complex in a normal water year produces about 30% of the company’s total annual power generation.

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