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Return to Previous PageDam Relicensing A Long, High-Stakes Game

By Patti Walker
Hells Canyon Journal

The relicensing of the Hells Canyon Complex of three dams is an enormous, complex, lengthy, and high stakes” undertaking. That was made evident to county officials and others attending a special meeting in Halfway last week. Commissioners from counties around the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area received a daylong update on that process from Idaho Power, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, and local, private non-profit group, the Friends of Brownlee.

Idaho Power manages the Hells Canyon Complex, which includes the Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon dams on the Snake River, in accordance with an operating license issued in 1959 by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The license to operate the dam complex expires in 2005. Idaho Power must have its application to the federal government by July, 2003.

While those dates seem far in the future, it will take every bit of that time to complete the process, according to Craig Jones, Idaho Power Project Manager for the relicensing effort.

“The playing field has changed tremendously in the last 50 years since Idaho Power initially was licensed to operate the dams,” Jones told the audience. “We apply for the opportunity to operate the dams, to make power available and to sell it. These days, that comes with a higher price tag.”

Jones said that federal legislation protecting endangered species and water has been enacted, and values and expectations around the use of public resources have shifted.

“If you use the people’s (government) resources or have an adverse impact on them, you have to pay in exchange,” said Jones. “Payment comes in the form of protection, enhancement and mitigation measures.”

According to Jones, instead of fighting over impacts and costs, Idaho Power is using a collaborative process with parties who have a stake, to work through difficult and technically complex issues that have public, environmental, political and economic implications.

Planning and research for the relicensing of the dams began two years ago with the formation of technical resource work groups on terrestrial, aquatics, recreational, cultural and economic issues.

“We are addressing many issues by studying how the dams affect natural, cultural and recreational resources, and how we might operate them to balance those resource and economic considerations,” Jones said.

He told the assembled group that Idaho Power, through the work groups and a collaborative team, will use scientific data from over 90 studies to develop a vision of desired future conditions at the dam complex and the surrounding area. These, along with measures to enhance, protect, or lessen the impact of the dams’ operation on natural, cultural, and recreational resources, will be included in the reapplication packet. They will ultimately become part of the terms and conditions of the new license.

Bureau Of Land Management

Dorothy Mason, Bureau of Land Management team leader for the Hells Canyon Complex relicensing, explained BLM’s role in the relicensing effort. The federal agency is responsible for 115 miles of the 193 miles of land affected by the dams.

“The BLM is developing, in collaboration with Idaho Power and other agencies, recommendations that protect, mitigate and enhance resources managed by the BLM, for the next 30 to 50 years of operation of the dams,” said Mason. “We see the opportunity to gain funding for habitat mitigation, recreation facilities and maintenance, restoration of endangered fish runs and other projects.”

According to Mason, the BLM is seeking to reach an equitable agreement that protects natural resources while providing environmentally sound electricity.

BLM resources in the Hells Canyon Complex include Endangered Species Act-listed fish, mollusks and plants, key wildlife habitat, riparian habitat, cultural and tribal trust resources for six tribes, and high-use recreation areas.

Forest Service

The BLM does not have the authority to make conditions mandatory, as the Forest Service does, but Mason stated that the federal licensing agency expects BLM recommendations to be included if they are linked to agency land use plans, and the scientific opinions and policies of other federal agencies.

The Forest Service is charged with the responsibility for managing the use of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area (HCNRA), which was established in 1975. Eighty-eight miles of Forest Service land is involved in the Hells Canyon Complex Relicensing Project. The Forest Service is in the midst of updating the management plan for the HCNRA. Kurt Wiedenmann, planning staff officer from the Wallow-Whitman Forest, gave the commissioners an overview of the process.

Wiedenmann presented five different management alternatives the Forest Servicenis asking for feedback on: the Native Ecosystem Alternative (a citizen based alternative), a Wallowa County Alternative (developed by a coalition of counties) and three Forest Service-generated alternatives. According to Wiedenmann, there are a number of trade-offs in the alternatives. The main question is how well the alternatives meet the intent of legislation that gave birth to, and guides the use of the recreation area and its natural resources.

“The Forest Service’s preferred alternative proposes an approach to balance the nconservation and preservation of the area’s resources while providing a broad range of land uses and recreational opportunities,” said Wiedenmann.

The Native Ecosystem focuses more on protecting the ecosystem and limiting resource and recreational uses. The Wallowa County alterative places greater emphasis on management for the purpose of maintaining traditional resources uses nand increasing recreational uses.

The Forest Service, like the BLM, is working cooperatively with Idaho Power to look at resource and recreational uses, impacts and costs that relate to the dams.

Friends of Brownlee

Mike Nelson, President of the non-profit group Friends of Brownlee (FOB), made an impassioned presentation on the organization and its strategy for impacting the relicensing process.

“We have two goals,” stated Nelson. “The main one is to work with Baker County and other players in the relicensing process who have control over the water levels, to increase water levels so that boat ramps on the reservoir in Richland are useable during the season. Our second is to assure that stable water levels are maintained in the Brownlee Reservoir for the 30 to 40 days of spawning season, to allow warm water fish to spawn.”

Nelson shared what the group has learned about how flows are decided upon, and clarified some common understandings about that issue. According to Nelson, Idaho Power benefits more – can produce more hydroelectric power – when Brownlee Reservoir is full. The Army Corps of Engineers controls reservoir levels from January through April, for flood protection in western Oregon. From that point forward, Idaho Power controls water levels and flow. A technical team made up of the BLM, National Marine Fisheries Service, US Fish and Wildlife and the Corps, make requests on levels and flow to Idaho Power, for salmon recovery.

“No one has been looking out for the recreational interests of Brownlee Reservoir,” said Nelson.

FOB now boasts 2,000 members, Nelson stated. He urged the counties to play an active role in relicensing. According to Nelson, FOB is drafting a resolution asking Baker County to take a lead role in negotiating stable water levels. He predicted that if there is no relief on the reservoir water level, substantial litigation and negotiation would ensue to recoup financial damages to businesses.

County Issues

Throughout the day, commissioners expressed concern about the complexity of the process and the best way for counties to be involved. Jones urged commissioners to participate on the collaborative team, to sit in on resource work groups, and to attend a workshop in April in Boise where results of the scientific studies will be shared.

Brian Cole, Baker County Commissioner who facilitated the Halfway meeting, said Baker County would be drafting its own version of desired future conditions this month.

“The document, which may draw heavily from the new proposed BLM management plan, will define what Baker County’s interests are in relicensing,” said Cole.

According to Cole, three major areas will be addressed: recreational facilities improvements on the river, stability of water levels and flow at Brownlee Reservoir, and a future funding plan for support of any recreational facilities development or improvements.

Fifty miles of Brownlee Reservoir forms the eastern boundary of Baker County.

Hells Canyon Journal
Halfway, Oregon
March 22, 2000

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