Idaho Power received water quality certifications from the states of Idaho and Oregon in its quest to relicense the Hells Canyon Complex, a step that the company is calling "a huge milestone" toward earning a new license to operate the three hydroelectric projects on the Snake River.

The Section 401 certifications under the Clean Water Act mean that the Oregon and Idaho departments of environmental quality signed off on Idaho Power's plan for meeting water quality standards when operating the three dams in Hells Canyon for up to five decades.

Announced May 24, the certifications follow an agreement signed by governors of both states in April. In that agreement, Idaho Power agreed to spend an additional $20 million to improve water quality, reduce pollutants and boost hatchery production, while Oregon temporarily abandoned its efforts to require fish passage at the three dams.

The certifications put Idaho Power on track to receive a new license in 2022, 17 years after its initial license expired in July 2005. The company continues to receive annual licenses to operate while it seeks a new 50-year license. Measures in the plan are expected to cost more than $400 million, to be spent over the license period.

"Receiving the 401s from the states is a huge milestone for the company," Brett Dumas, Idaho Power's director of environmental affairs, said in a prepared statement. "This allows us to move forward with relicensing our most valuable asset. And, it clears the way for a tremendous number of projects to improve the environment of the Snake River while Idaho Power continues to provide safe, reliable, clean energy into the future."

Some of those stewardship projects have already begun, while others will await the new license, said spokesman Brad Bowlin.

He said having the certification gives the company the confidence to start moving forward with some of the projects outlined in the agreement. One example, he said, is its plan to plant native vegetation along riverbanks to help cool water. The company can now demonstrate to landowners that its water quality plan has been certified by both states, and can begin to draw up agreements, Bowlin said.

Other plans for addressing water temperature issues will wait for the new license. In one major project, the company will narrow and deepen stretches of the Snake River between Walters Ferry and Homedale to improve the natural river function and habitat, which will also cool the water.

The company has also agreed to adjust operations at Brownlee Reservoir in years when extremely high temperatures are forecasted, Bowlin said.

"We can change the timing of when we move water out of the reservoir, ultimately lowering the temperatures coming out below Hells Canyon Dam," he said. "It's something we would do infrequently, as weather patterns dictate in extreme situations."

Idaho Power is also conducting a 10-year study in coordination with the U.S. Geological Survey that looks at mercury levels in the reservoirs and will try to determine where the mercury is coming from, and where it's going.

Bowlin added that there are a vast number of projects and plans outlined in its relicensing proposal. "It's pretty wide-ranging, when you're talking about a basin the size of the Snake River and its tributaries," he said.

The three dams--Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon--provide about 70 percent of Idaho Power's hydroelectric generation and about 30 percent of the total energy produced. The company started to work on relicensing the three dams with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in the mid-1990s.

Bowlin said while the water quality certifications are a major step, other large steps remain. FERC will have to update its environmental review of relicensing, which had been completed in 2007, he said.

Idaho Power is also seeking to change a temperature standard in a stretch of the Snake River below Hells Canyon Dam to allow a 2.7-degree increase in maximum water temperature from Oct. 23 to Nov. 7. Last June, Idaho Power sued the EPA in U.S. District Court for failing to act on Idaho's request for a change in the standard.

A judge in the case, Idaho Power Company v. United States Environmental Protection Agency et al., recently stayed all proceedings until Nov. 25, and is requiring status reports from EPA indicating whether the agency has taken action.

K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.