Guest Opinions

Idaho Power is trying to navigate the tricky waters of relicensing for Hells Canyon dams

Brownlee Dam in the Snake River’s Hells Canyon.
Brownlee Dam in the Snake River’s Hells Canyon. Photo courtesy of Idaho Power

Recent news coverage of Idaho Power’s efforts to relicense its dams in Hells Canyon has not accurately portrayed the company’s position on allowing salmon and steelhead in the Snake River above Hells Canyon Dam.

We are not trying to negate Oregon’s law requiring fish passage. Our issue is the conflicting conditions related to fish passage Idaho and Oregon propose to require in Idaho Power’s federal license for the dams. Since the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issues the license for these dams, we believe the FERC should resolve this conflict.

Why that matters: The company’s three dams in Hells Canyon straddle the Idaho-Oregon border, subjecting us to regulation from both states. Salmon and steelhead below Hells Canyon Dam are on the federal endangered species list. Oregon asserts authority to require passage of non-listed, hatchery-raised salmon and steelhead upstream past the dams. However, this would also allow these fish to enter Idaho waters. Idaho law prohibits reintroduction of fish.

Idaho Power cannot comply with these conflicting state requirements. The impasse is a major hurdle blocking a new long-term license for Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon dams and implementation of significant fish and wildlife conservation measures, recreation opportunities and water-quality improvements along the Snake River.

Idaho Power has worked with both states for over a year to resolve this issue, and negotiations are ongoing. FERC declined to assume authority on this issue; we have asked the U.S. District Court of Appeals to review FERC’s decision. That appeal is on hold while discussions continue.

For more than half a century, the Hells Canyon dams have been important drivers in the region’s growth and prosperity. They provide about 70 percent of the hydroelectric power used by customers in Idaho and eastern Oregon.

We’re optimistic that we can resolve the key issues holding up a long-term license and ensure this clean, low-cost resource will generate electricity for decades to come.

Brett Dumas is environmental affairs director for Idaho Power.