By J. Robb Brady
U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, wants a one-sided approach to dam re-licensing. The Idaho Republican would revise laws governing the re-licensing of private dams by:
– Limiting how much power companies are obligated to pay for the environmental damage dams cause.
– Weakening the federal agencies responsible for protecting what is left of the region’s environment.
Idaho Power Co. is in the midst of re-licensing its Hells Canyon dams, built in the 1950s, and Craig’s bill is one response to that effort.
The bill would undo a system that tries to balance utility needs against public accountability. A 1986 amendment to the Federal Power Act requires the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to weigh environmental considerations equally with power generation needs and safety issues.
One feature allows power companies the option of working out agreements with competing interests. Avista Power Co., formerly Washington Water Power, showed how the process works. The utility reached out to Indian tribes, federal agencies and the dozens of interest groups to reach agreement in record time last February. Based on that settlement, FERC issued the license for two dams on the Clark Fork River in Montana and Idaho.
If anything, the current law isn’t strong enough. It only requires utilities to listen to all stakeholders. Utilities can then hammer out a re-licensing agreement based on those discussions, but they are free to ignore this input.
Craig and his utility backers say the process is not efficient. They want power operations to take priority over other considerations like managing land and wildlife.
Taking care of these concerns is hardly as burdensome as most utilities claim.
Steps power companies already take–such as installing efficient fish ladders on dams, establishing minimum stream flow limits and protecting fish and wildlife habitat–reduce power output only by 1 percent.
The utilities simply don’t like the federal agencies asserting their environmental prerogatives to protect water and land.
But what’s the alternative? In the half-century since Idaho Power built its three Hells Canyon dams, salmon stocks have been decimated.
Fish biologists knew salmon could not negotiate high dams, but no one listened. Once the dams went up, salmon fisherman were left with the sickening memory of leaping salmon flailing helplessly against a towering wall of concrete.
To its credit, Idaho Power’s dam re-licensing efforts have included listening to a large assortment of interest groups. The utility a1so has exposed these groups to its current re-licensing problems.
That’s how it should be. Dam re-licensing is not an easy issue. It involves trade-offs. The Northwest needs hydropower. But the region can’t sacrifice its environment. Balance is key to dam re-licensing. Giving utilities an unwarranted advantage over other interests – as Craig seems to prefer – is no solution.
Idaho Falls, ID
April 19, 2000