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Idaho’s Sen. Larry Craig should butt out of the whole dam business

  The company that powers the computer I write on is getting the kind of attention corporations loathe.

Idaho Power Co. and its three Hells Canyon dams on the Snake River have been thrust into the center of a controversy over a provision of the energy bill that would give power companies more control over the rivers where they operate. Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig champions the provision, which could save hydroelectric companies billions of dollars and reduce the public’s involvement in reviews conducted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Public involvement is crucial, because license reviews only occur every 30 to 50 years, and Idaho Power’s license is up in 2005. Like more than 400 other dams up for relicensing in the next 10 years, the Hells Canyon dams face new restrictions, costs and conditions to balance the turning of a profit from public resources -- our rivers.

Salmon still can’t swim through the high dams that produce enough electricity to power my hometown of Boise, offer flood control for people who live as far away as Portland and create reservoirs that have become the most popular fishing holes in Idaho.

So with Sen. Craig pushing the legislation, Idaho Power, one of the most powerful corporations in his home state, must be the driving force behind it, right?

Not so, says Idaho Power spokesman Dennis Lopez. Idaho Power was part of the national coalition that supported the legislation last year, but now, it has backed off in its support.

"Idaho Power has moved on and is seeking a new license on the traditional track," Lopez says. Why, then, is Craig still pushing the bill?

Because the bill remains important to the National Hydropower Association, the organization that represents hydroelectric-dam owners nationwide. They believe Craig’s bill offsets the immense power given federal agencies in a reform bill passed in 1986. It is true that federal agencies now have the power to add mandatory conditions to a dam license, such as requiring fish passage, without looking at the effects these added costs would have on electricity output.

Craig’s bill gives dam owners the ability to offer an alternative even after the final license is proposed with the added conditions. If the agencies reject the plan, the dam owners can appeal these conditions. Craig argues that such review will streamline the process, but it’s hard to see how adding time for the company to come up with an alternative plan -- and then a new appeals process -- is going to shorten the process.

Companies serious about reducing the cost and time involved in relicensing already have an alternative. FERC offers a collaborative process, whereby dam owners, environmentalists, Indian tribes and federal agencies get together early in the process and write a new license application.

Avista Corp., which produces power for parts of Washington, Idaho and Montana, used this approach when it relicensed its two hydroelectric dams on the Clark Fork, in Montana. The company and its negotiating partners quickly came to agreement on what the company would pay and how the dams would be operated to offset the impact on the rivers and endangered fish like bull trout. Once they reached a pact, FERC approved it, in 1999, two years before Avista’s existing licenses expired. That saved the company money, cleared up its uncertainty and made it partners with former opponents.

New Mexico Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman has introduced an amendment based on a compromise reached a year ago between the hydro industry and environmentalists. The compromise allows the agencies to set the required level of environmental protection, and then anyone -- the company or environmentalists involved in the relicensing -- can offer a cheaper alternative that is "no less protective" to the environment, which must be adopted by the agencies. Craig’s bill requires only the imprecise "adequate" protections.

Balance is in the eye of the beholder. But my guess is that Idaho Power isn’t backing Craig’s bill because it knows even its opponents don’t want the company to give up its three dams -- at least not yet. So even though a widely run story in the Washington Post made Idaho Power the "poster child" of dam relicensing in the hard-nosed style of Sen. Craig, I think Idaho Power’s management would rather be seen as playing by the rules instead of trying to change them.

That’s a smart move for them politically, and it’s a good thing for the democratic process. Advocates for salmon deserve a seat at the negotiating table, especially when the time to talk takes decades to arrive.

Rocky Barker is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). He is a reporter for the Idaho Statesman and recent fellow at the Andrus Center for Public Policy in Boise, Idaho.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].