A salmon dispute is in the way of Idaho Power relicensing its 3 big Hells Canyon dams

Saving salmon: Why these remarkable fish matter to the Northwest

For hundreds of thousands of years, wild ocean salmon have been coming to the Pacific Northwest. Now, their existence is under threat, along with the communities they support.
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For hundreds of thousands of years, wild ocean salmon have been coming to the Pacific Northwest. Now, their existence is under threat, along with the communities they support.

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20 years later, Idaho's salmon are still in danger of disappearing forever

The salmon of the Northwest are the stuff of legends. Pioneers talked of rivers so thick that they were tempted to cross on the backs of the fish. But times have changed, the fish's numbers have plunged, and 13 species were placed on the endangered species list by 1995. Climate change and our network of hydropower dams have helped thwart attempts so far to find a sustainable solution. And it's possible some of our strategies - including our reliance on hatcheries - have backfired.

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The future of Idaho Power’s main generation system is tied to salmon.

Idaho Power’s stabilizing of flows below the Hells Canyon dams beginning in 1990 has played a key role in the restoration of endangered fall chinook. But its efforts to get a new license for its biggest Snake River dams has been held up over the fish, which has had a tough history.

More than a million salmon and steelhead historically reached spawning grounds in upstream Snake River tributaries. When Idaho Power built three dams in Hells Canyon, salmon and steelhead still returned to stretches of the Snake River below Swan Falls Dam, in the lower Boise, Payette and Weiser rivers. When Oxbow Dam was closed in 1958, tens of thousands of fish died in the low flows and warm water.

An experimental system to get the juvenile salmon downstream failed and was scrapped in 1962. Instead, Idaho Power captured the salmon at Hells Canyon, the lowest dam, and either took them to hatcheries it financed or trucked them to rivers like the Boise for fishing.

Including Brownlee, the largest hydropower plant, the dams have the capacity to generate more than 1,100 megawatts, about a third of the utility’s capacity.

“The Hells Canyon Complex are the crown jewels on our system, “ said Bill Shawver, Idaho Power director of communications.

The Boise-based private utility serves 530,000 customers in Idaho and eastern Oregon.

Idaho Power’s license for its Hells Canyon dams with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ended in 2005. It has sought a new 50-year license for its complex, expected to add $400 million in costs to its customers.

That might seem steep, but Idaho Power estimates the capital cost at about $36 per megawatt. A new natural gas plant would cost about $115 per megawatt.

Those costs include spending on improving water quality and lowering water temperatures for salmon through a combination of expanding wetlands and floodplains; streambank restoration to increase shade and reduce runoff; and converting cropland from flood irrigation to pressurized irrigation.

Oregon has argued that the current hatchery program does not give its anglers the salmon they were promised. As a part of its water quality certification process, which Idaho Power must pass before it can get a new license, it seeks a pilot program to restore salmon to Pine Creek, which flows into the Snake just below Oxbow Dam from Oregon.

Oregon has the support of the Nez Perce Tribe, Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, backed up by legislation passed earlier this year, flatly opposes reintroduction of any salmon above Hells Canyon. Research showed that the quality of the spawning habitat in Idaho above Hells Canyon is no longer healthy enough to support salmon.

Idaho Power is counting on Otter and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown working out a solution that would get the relicensing effort back on track. Otherwise, the issue could go to court.

“We’d much rather settle this between the states and Idaho Power,” Shawver said.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker