An Idaho public utility’s nearly two-decade effort to renew its license for a three-dam hydroelectric project on the Snake River on the Idaho-Oregon Border is moving forward with federal regulators announcing plans to update an environmental study.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission this month said it will prepare a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to consider new developments since it completed the 2007 document for Idaho Power’s Hells Canyon Project. The commission expects to complete the supplemental review that includes a draft and public comments in late 2023.
Brett Dumas, director of Environmental Affairs for Idaho Power, said the company wanted the supplemental impact statement to bolster the process against potential lawsuits.
“We felt if they didn’t take this step, they would be taking some legal risk,” Dumas said.
Hells Canyon is a mile-deep canyon carved by the Snake River, much of it popular for recreation but inaccessible by road. The Hells Canyon Complex includes Hells Canyon Dam, Brownlee Dam and Oxbow Dam built from the late 1950s through the 1960s.
The commission issued a 50-year license for the project in 1955, which expired in 2005. Idaho Power, starting in 2003, began trying to obtain a new 50-year license from the commission and submitted a relicensing application. It has been operating on annual renewal of the existing license since it expired.
The dams blocked salmon and steelhead from traveling upstream, eliminating about 80% of spawning habitat for Snake River fall chinook and steelhead. The company compensates by paying for salmon and steelhead hatchery programs below the dams.
Kevin Lewis, a consultant for Idaho Rivers United, said the 1955 license was created before environmental laws.
“So, clearly, it’s time for a new license and some mitigation on the project,” he said.
Dumas said obtaining a 50-year license would provide certainty to allow the company to begin on long-planned projects that include recreation and restoration work.
Among the events that have happened since the 2007 impact study, Idaho and Oregon in 2019 reached an agreement that requires Idaho Power to spend $312 million on water quality and habitat improvements, and Idaho and Oregon each issued water quality certifications for the project under the Clean Water Act.
Idaho Power had been caught in the middle of a fight between Oregon and Idaho. Oregon insisted on returning federally protected salmon and steelhead above the dams. Idaho officials didn’t want salmon and steelhead, listed under the Endangered Species Act, above the dams that could lead to environmental lawsuits and force expensive mitigation work.
The finished deal the two states reached involves a 20-year study with fish moved above Hells Canyon Dam, the lowest dam in the complex, but not above the other two dams that would allow fish into the middle section of the Snake River and into southern Idaho. After the 20-year study, officials will consider returning salmon and steelhead to that area. That section is considered poor habitat because it flows through environmentally degraded agricultural areas.
Pollution leaving those agricultural areas, which are not controlled by Idaho Power, accumulates at the Hells Canyon Complex, elevating levels of methylmercury that accumulates in organisms and works its way up the food chain to fish. Methylmercury also travels downstream from the dams.
Idaho Power “ends up on the receiving end of a lot of pollution coming down from further up the basin,” said Lewis. “But their project is what collects and concentrates it, so they bear some responsibility here.”
He said he'd like to see the supplemental impact statement include more robust mitigation requirements than what is contained in the 2007 document.
Idaho Power in July 2020 supplemented its license application to include an analysis of fish-related enhancement measures. In October 2020, the company also filed draft biological assessments with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The supplemental Environmental Impact Statement will consider all those new details in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federal agencies to analyze environmental effects of proposed actions before making decisions.
Idaho Power has more than 600,000 customers in southern Idaho and eastern Oregon. The company has 17 hydroelectric facilities on the Snake River and its tributaries, with the Hells Canyon Complex on the Snake River providing about 70% of the company’s hydroelectric generating capacity and 30% of the company’s total generating capacity.
Idaho Power has a stated goal of providing 100% clean energy by 2045 while keeping prices low and reliability high.
“Getting a new license for Hells Canyon is critical for that,” Dumas said.