The governors of Oregon and Idaho have signed an agreement that both states are calling a "monumental step" in Idaho Power's efforts to relicense the Hells Canyon Complex.

The Departments of Environmental Quality from both states--which had solicited public comments on their draft water quality certifications for continued operation of the three dams--are now working to issue the Clean Water Act Section 401 water quality certifications required by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to relicense the three hydroelectric dams.

Oregon and Idaho had been at odds over whether to require fish passage at the dams as part of the water quality certification--a disagreement that was delaying the process. In the settlement, Oregon agreed not to require passage for spring Chinook and summer steelhead, for now, but will release and study adult hatchery fish in Pine Creek--which originates in Oregon and flows into Hells Canyon Reservoir--and revisit the question after 20 years. The study--to be managed by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and funded by Idaho Power--resolves the long-running dispute.

Brad Bowlin, a spokesman for Idaho Power, said the agreement is a significant step toward winning a new 50-year license for the Hells Canyon Complex, which the company now estimates could happen as soon as 2022. The utility started working toward relicensing in 1995, and its old license expired in 2005. In the meantime, the company has been receiving annual licenses to operate the Hells Canyon, Oxbow and Brownlee dams.

"There's still a long way to go in terms of the relicensing," Bowlin told NW Fishletter. "This was a really big hurdle to get over. It took a lot of negotiation, and frankly, we're really grateful both sides were able to come to the table and think outside the box," he said.

The announcement follows an initial agreement reached in December over Snake River water quality.

The agreement adds $20 million to Idaho Power's $312-million commitment to improve water quality and habitat, boost hatchery production, and monitor and study fish. Under the agreement, spring Chinook production at its Rapid River Hatchery will increase from 3.2 million to 4 million juveniles.

Bowlin said the relicensing costs will be spread out over 50 years and ultimately will be passed on to customers. But, he noted, "Before we can do any of that, the Public Utilities Commission has to determine those were prudent and in the best interest of customers."

At an environmental conference in Boise on April 23, Idaho Power CEO Darrell Anderson pointed to the agreement as a recent success at collaboration, calling it a "big milestone" under which anadromous fish will be reintroduced into Pine Creek above Hells Canyon Dam, and monitored during a pilot study before fish passage is reconsidered.

"This long-awaited agreement supplies clean, affordable energy for Idahoans, improves water quality, and provides additional fish for recreational and tribal ceremonial purposes," Idaho Gov. Brad Little said in a news release.

In a separate release, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown touted the promised improvements in water quality. "This agreement benefits the communities of eastern Oregon, since we know what's good for water, habitat, and fish is good for people," she said in a statement.

The water quality measures will also reduce sources of mercury and other pollutants.

Bowlin said Idaho Power will also be addressing water quality--including water temperature--along portions of the middle Snake River in two areas where the river is wide and shallow and most susceptible to warming. Efforts will be made to narrow and deepen the channel so it stays colder as it flows through, he said. The company will also work with landowners on riparian habitat, planting native plants along key tributaries and working to keep livestock out of streams where appropriate.

Bowlin said in addition to Pine Creek, habitat improvements will be made in the Owyhee and Malheur watersheds, and in Goose Creek and Eagle Creek.

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.