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NW Fishletter #389, January 7, 2019

[5] Agreement Breaks 'Groundhog Day Loop' For Hells Canyon Relicensing

After a decade-long stalemate over water quality certification at Idaho Power's Hells Canyon Complex, a major logjam in the company's quest for a new 50-year license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) was broken in an agreement the utility reached Dec. 14 with the states of Oregon and Idaho.

Idaho Power agreed to spend an additional $20 million over the next 20 years to research fish habitat, boost hatchery production and improve habitat and water quality. For its part, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality dropped its requirement for fish passage above the three dams in the complex as part of its certification to ensure water quality standards are met within the reservoirs and downstream of the project. The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, which opposed reintroduction, said there was "reasonable assurance" utility's proposal would comply with the CWA, Idaho water-quality standards and "other appropriate water quality requirements of state law."

The Hells Canyon Complex needs Clean Water Act Section 401 certification from both Oregon and Idaho to secure a FERC license, as the Snake River borders the two states. Idaho's and Oregon's DEQs have been in a stalemate over the fish passage issue for the past 11 years.

Brett Dumas, Idaho Power's director of environmental affairs, said the agreement doesn't completely clear the way for a new FERC license, but it breaks the "Groundhog Day loop" and removes the largest barrier by far.

"We certainly appreciate the states being willing to come together and find a common landing spot," Dumas said, adding, "It's a bit challenging to get the politics of Idaho and Oregon to land in the same spot."

Donnie Oliveira, spokesman for the Oregon DEQ, said Oregon values habitat restoration and fish passage solutions where they are appropriate.

"We decided to move forward, knowing there are other solutions that will allow Oregon to continue on the path," he said.

That path now includes a commitment by Idaho Power to improve water quality, fish habitat and vegetation along some 150 miles of the Snake River and several tributaries. Among other commitments, Idaho Power will increase spring Chinook production at its Rapid River Hatchery from 3.2 million juveniles to 4 million.

Oregon says full implementation of Idaho Power's plan will result in cooler water temperatures through revegetation projects, floodplain enhancement, and the creation of wetland and islands.

In addition, when water temperatures are high, Idaho Power will operate Brownlee Dam in ways that will help reduce those temperatures. Dumas explained that Brownlee Reservoir acts as somewhat of a heat sink, and by drafting down the reservoir, the utility can let the cold water coming into the reservoir pass through the system faster, keeping it cooler.

The proposed water quality certification--which is now open to public comment in both Oregon and Idaho--removes the fish passage requirement for a water quality certification needed for the FERC license, but does not completely take it off the table in the future.

Dumas said Oregon had been seeking passage for spring Chinook and summer steelhead, which are not listed under the Endangered Species Act above the complex, although wild spring Chinook and summer steelhead are listed below the dams.

As part of the agreement, Idaho Power will plant some of its hatchery adults in Pine Creek, a tributary that originates in both Oregon and Idaho, and flows into Hell's Canyon Reservoir in Idaho. The utility will research whether habitat and other biological needs are there to support naturally reproducing populations, Dumas said. "If the science indicates that either of those species could naturally reproduce above the dams, the states will reconsider [fish passage] at the end of 20 years."

He said the new $20-million commitment is in addition to $400 million that Idaho Power has already agreed to spend through the Snake River Stewardship Program as part of its water quality certification.

Even with the agreement, Dumas said, he doesn't expect a final license until 2022 at the earliest. He said FERC completed its environmental impact statement for the license in 2007, but needed the water quality certification to move forward.

If the two states finalize that certification in June after incorporating public comments, FERC will then likely require a supplemental environmental impact statement due to the length of time that has passed, he said. An Endangered Species Act-consultation process will then be required with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries, and once a biological opinion is issued, FERC can put together its final license, Dumas said.

He said Idaho Power expects the costs associated with applying for a new license to be about $300 million by the time a new license is issued. The total cost of implementing that license, including its myriad mitigation measures, is expected to cost about $1 billion over the anticipated 50-year license term.

Rates will be impacted, but the company does not yet have an estimate of the increases. Even with relicensing costs, the company says continued operation of the three dams is cost-effective for customers and critical for keeping electricity prices low while delivering clean, renewable energy.

The Hells Canyon Complex--which includes Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon dams--provides about 70 percent of Idaho Power's annual hydroelectric generation, and about 30 percent of the total energy produced. Brownlee has a capacity of 585.4 MW, Oxbow has a capacity of 190 MW and Hells Canyon has a capacity of 391.5 MW.

Idaho Power's FERC license for the Hells Canyon Complex expired in 2005, and the company has been operating under annual licenses ever since. -K.C. Mehaffey

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NW Fishletter is produced by NewsData LLC.
Publisher/Editor-in-Chief: Mark Ohrenschall, Editor: K.C. Mehaffey
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