During the next decade, many privately owned hydropower dams in Idaho must obtain new operating licenses from the federal government. These licenses will last up to 50 years. Thus, the new licenses will affect Idaho’s economy, environment, water quality and recreation opportunities for generations.
Because relicensing is so important, power companies, agencies, tribes and conservation groups must focus on common values rather than our differences. Stakeholders must he willing to talk honestly about the costs of hydropower dams. Companies must he willing to compromise on mitigation requirements.
One heartening example of collaboration and cooperation was the relicensing of the Clark Fork dams in northern Idaho and western Montana. These dams are owned by Avista Inc., a forward-thinking company that went out of its way with an innovative, responsible approach to relicensing. Because of Avista’s open, collaborative attitude, everyone worked together on relicensing rather than fighting it out later in court. Stakeholders crafted an excellent agreement and Avista received a new license a full year before the old one expired.
Conservation groups, agencies and companies are now involved in relicensing other hydropower projects in Idaho, including dams on the Bear River and the Mid-Snake River. But the granddaddy of them all is the license for Idaho Power’s Hells Canyon complex, the nation’s largest privately owned hydropower facility, producing 40 percent of the electricity Idaho Power sells.
In every relicensing process, citizens and conservation interests strive to allow dams to continue operating, while improving facilities, flows and operations to reduce the damage done to fish, wildlife, water quality and recreation. Many old dams (like Hells Canyon) use obsolete technologies and hardware, based on old licenses that ignored damage done to rivers and wildlife.
With Idaho Rivers United supporting the removal of four other dams in southeast Washington state to save Idaho salmon, some people misrepresent IRU’s position on Hells Canyon. For the record – WU is not seeking removal of Hells Canyon dams, despite the fact that they eliminated all salmon in upstream waters like the Boise River, the Lower Payette River, and the Owyhee River. A huge population of Snake River fall chinook (now endangered because of the loss of too much habitat) was eliminated in the Marsing reach alone
But operated better, the vast majority of dams (including Hells Canyon) can continue for years to come. Only those few whose environmental costs outweigh benefits (like four federal dams on the lower Snake River in Washington) should be removed.
Again, IRU is not seeking removal of the Bells Canyon dams. We do, however, seek responsible mitigation for damage done to fish and wildlife and changes in dam operations to undo part of it. Expensive TV advertisements run by Idaho Power (funded by hundreds of thousands of customer dollars) do not mention these responsibilities.
In relicensing, stakeholders review the negative impacts of dams and provide input. Mitigation is a cost of doing business on publicly owned rivers, ensuring that companies take cost-effective steps to reduce damage.
Experience shows that environmental stewardship does not threaten companies. Notably, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has found that relicensing brings dramatic environmental improvements at an average cost of only 1 percent of generating capacity. Responsible hydropower companies still earn huge profits from the virtually free use of Idaho’s rivers – public assets – but in exchange for relicensing, improvements are required. For any decision lasting 50 years, this is only reasonable.
Dams damage rivers, fish and wildlife. New studies indicate that hydropower may even contribute to global warming through increased greenhouse gases caused by reservoirs. Even so, Idaho Rivers United acknowledges the need for low-cost power. And IRU will continue to work with Idaho Power and others to achieve a better balance between power production and the conservation of the beautiful rivers in our state.
Twin Falls, ID
June 23, 2000