Editor’s note: This posting was authored by Pat Ford. Many years ago, Pat served as the executive director of ICL. Most recently, he was the executive director for Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition. Pat lives in Boise, Idaho, and periodically contributes to the ICL blog.
Two months ago, I suggested here a three-part agenda to change the compass settings at Idaho Power Company to align better with changes in energy, our climatic conditions and what Idaho needs from its rivers. Let me now stumble a few halting feet out onto the third part: repairing damage and limiting threats to Idaho waters and lands caused by the company’s hydro dams.
First, to Idaho add Oregon, Washington, at least five Indian Tribes and the sovereign people of the United States. Idaho Power has a very wide sway, geographically and in the number of sovereigns to whom it is lawfully accountable in differing proportions. This happens when you build dams on the six-state Snake River.
I think the objective reaches well past Idaho Power: assure the health of the Snake River and its watershed, above and below ground. Or, more humbly and accurately, help its rivers, streams and aquifers re-gather some of their native capacities for health. This is a wise course any time, but especially as the Snake now invents its sinuous way-and thereby much of our way-across decades of climatic churn that have begun and will not end soon.
When Idaho Power built its dams, river health could be seen as in some surplus and affordable electricity in deficit. That situation is now reversing. I don’t know exactly when Idaho will be able, if it wishes, to do without Snake River hydroelectricity. I’ll guess 35 years, but the trend is more important than the end point. We will not be able to do without a healthy Snake, even as rising water temperatures and jittery hydrology make it harder to achieve.
It’s plain (if not yet to Idaho Power) that technological progress, energy markets, and the inventive force of the imperative to squeeze out carbon are breaking apart the old utility model of generating and delivering energy. I think this is true also for the old hydro utility model of using water. Using it to help weather through climate change while supporting more people will, from now on, grow steadily more valuable than using it to generate electricity. Our utility and water institutions do not yet reflect this fact-indeed, they reflect the opposite-and therein lies a lot of work.
So, perhaps a plan for this Part Three could be built around thoughtfully answering two questions. First, what 25% or so of Idaho Power’s hydro generation will, if taken off-line or re-programmed to more multiple uses over the next two decades, most improve the Snake River’s health, or improve the regulatory, economic and public conditions for its health? Any answer will have to grapple with hydro’s main and often lead partner in most of the Snake’s instances of ill health: agricultural practices.
Second, what legal, financial and civic changes are most needed so that Snake River water can be dynamically managed and invested in for its new highest and best use: river and watershed health? Such use will surely still include farming and producing food and could include hydro production if any such is still needed. But health must be the driver.
Any agenda created by tackling these questions will be politically impossible to achieve in Idaho today. That should not be troubling. Rather, "politically impossible" is a design principle for any forward-leaning Snake River strategy worth its salt, just as "Idaho today" is a frozen state that, quickly, is melting away.
While writing this, another question struck me as a good fulcrum for scouting the Snake River’s future: what are Idaho, its Tribes, and our neighbors downstream going to do about Brownlee Reservoir? I may try to muck around there soon.