Cooler water. And endangered fish.
are two of the hurdles that stand between Idaho Power Co. and new
federal licenses to operate the three dams on the Snake River known
as the Hells Canyon complex. For more than four years, Idaho Power
has been trying to obtain the water-pollution permits it needs for
relicensing. Because the company’s dams are on the state
boundary, it needs Clean Water Act permits from both Idaho and
The company must submit an operating plan that
demonstrates the dams won’t violate water-quality standards.
The three key remaining issues are temperature, dissolved oxygen
levels and total dissolved gas, with temperature usually being one
of the most difficult to address.
Idaho Power must cool
the water it discharges into the Snake to make it less harmful to
fall chinook salmon. Currently, it’s as much as 6 degrees
Fahrenheit too warm during the first few weeks of the October
spawning season, says Paul DeVito, natural resource specialist for
the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
massive reservoirs created by Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon dams
trap heat from the summer sun. But the water coming into the
reservoir from upstream users – including agriculture –
also helps create abnormally warm temperatures. And reduced flows,
caused by irrigators, cities and towns and other water users, also
contribute to the warm-water problem, making it difficult to figure
out who’s responsible for what portion of the temperature
As a result, Idaho Power may fund upstream
watershed restoration in order to cool the water that ultimately
flows into the Hells Canyon complex -- perhaps planting trees and
shrubs to shade streams as well as increasing in-stream flows.
Beyond water-quality issues, Idaho Power must satisfy the
federal government that it is doing enough to mitigate the damage
its dams cause to bull trout, steelhead and salmon. It’s
uncertain when the company will receive the necessary clearance
from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries. And
NOAA Fisheries has reserved its right to require fish passage at
the dams in the future even if it signs off on the current license
Idaho Power submitted its application for
license renewal with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in
2003. The company’s original 50-year operating license
expired in 2005, and it has since been operating on an annual
license. It now estimates it will receive its new license in 2010.
The federal power commission has the option of issuing a license
that is good for between 30 and 50 years.