Idaho, Oregon resolve long-running dispute about Snake River dams

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Idaho and Oregon ended a 15-year impasse to reach an agreement about a three-dam complex in Idaho that will bring $312 million of water quality and habitat improvements.

The three dams produce about 70% of Idaho Power’s hydro-electricity. The investor-owned utility has operated the dams on annual licenses since 2005, when the original 50-year federal license to operate the dams expired.


The agreement represents the culmination of decades-long negotiations between Idaho, Oregon, and Idaho Power, Idaho Gov. Brad Little said.

“This long-awaited agreement supplies clean, affordable energy for Idahoans, improves water quality, and provides additional fish for recreational and tribal ceremonial purposes,” Little said in a statement.

The utility, which runs the three dams on a one-mile stretch of the Snake River on the state border, has been caught in a battle between the two states about treatment of Chinook salmon and Steelhead trout, both of which are on the endangered species list.

The states signed the settlement agreement last week for the Hells Canyon Complex, representing a significant step toward Idaho Power’s reauthorization to operate the Hells Canyon, Brownlee and Oxbow dams.

The money will also fund research that will benefit the parties in a future review of water quality and the issue of fish passage will be revisited again 20 years into the licensing term, according to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s office. The funding supports habitat restoration projects along a 30-mile stretch of the Snake River and similar projects along 150 miles of tributaries.

The dams, built in the mid-1950s through 1967, prevented the passage of trout and salmon originating from the ocean on a historic spawning route.

The agreement represents a significant step forward in improving water quality in the Snake River and its tributaries, Brown said.

“This agreement benefits the communities of Eastern Oregon, since we know what’s good for water, habitat and fish is good for people,” Brown said.

Idaho Power supplies electricity to roughly 534,000 customers in southern Idaho and eastern Oregon. The Hells Canyon Complex in a normal water year produces about 30% of the company’s total annual power generation.

Oregon wanted to reintroduce hatchery-raised fish upstream past the dams, which would have brought the fish into Idaho waters, an issue because Idaho law prohibited the reintroduction of the fish, according to an editorial Brett Dumas, environmental affairs director for Idaho Power, sent to Idaho newspapers in early April.

The impasse was blocking the company’s ability to get a long-term license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Idaho Power will implement significant investments in water quality projects, resulting in cleaner, colder water flowing downstream as part of the agreement. Cooler water is considered vital for fish spawning.

The company will increase production at its Rapid River Hatchery, enabling 800,000 additional Chinook salmon to bolster state and tribal fishing opportunities in the future. In return, Oregon will not require fish passage as a condition of its water quality certification for the operation of the Hells Canyon dams.

The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality solicited comments on the draft water quality certification for the continued operation of the dams in December 2018, which included a draft settlement agreement. The DEQ is finalizing the water quality certification and formal responses to public comments received. It expects the efforts to be completed within the next month.

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Utilities Oregon Idaho
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