By Bert Caldwell
Federal regulators Wednesday moved with unprecedented speed to grant Avista Corp. a new License for two Clark Fork River dams.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has never renewed a license for a major hydroelectric project before expiration of the existing license.
The licenses for the Cabinet Gorge and Noxon Rapids dams were not due to lapse until next February.
Avista filed an application for a consolidated license last Feb.17.
Both Clark Fork dams were built in the 1950s. Together, they can generate up to 790 megawatts of electricity, or 60 percent of the hydropower that keeps Avista’s rates among the lowest in the country.
Avista launched its relicensing effort four years ago by convening a task force composed of government and tribal agencies, landowners, and environmental and community groups.
FERC participated as an observer.
The result was an application for a living license” whose provisions would evolve as studies revealed about the resource, particularly populations of bull and Westslope cutthroat trout.
Bull trout are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The listing for Westslope cutthroat trout is under study.
Avista agreed to spend $220 million during the 45-year life of the license to pay for studies and measures needed to enhance fish and wildlife environment and recreational opportunities.
In return, the utility was granted the ability to continue operating the dams as peaking facilities that generate more or less power, as demand requires.
The fluctuating flows that result provoked some of the few comments in opposition to the relicensing from downstream property owners concerned about erosion
The four FERC commissioners approved the license unanimously. In a release issued after the vote, the agency noted the average review takes three years.
Chairman James Hoecker said the swift processing of Avista’s application proves collaboration beats confrontation in resolving environmental issues involving dams.
“We are committed to reducing processing time in response to a dynamic business environment,” Hoecker said.
The commission adopted the alternative process in 1997 to prod utilities and their opponents toward compromises to resolve disputes sometimes more than a decade old.
Almost one-third of the projects up for relicensing now are being pursued using the new method.
Avista Chairman Tom Matthew said the Clark Fork Project relicensing is a tribute to those who participated and an example of the innovation the company brings to all it businesses.
Bob Anderson, director of relicensing at the company, said the collaborative process avoided expensive litigation and quickly put scientists in the field.
Some studies are already under way, he noted.
The process also was the centerpiece of an article in “Trout,” the national publication of Trout Unlimited.
The group’s Montana spokesman said Wednesday the process shows environmental interests can be flexible when brought in early on.
“This is kind of a landmark agreement,” said Bruce Farling.
The Spokesman Review
February 24, 2000