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To celebrate World Water Day today, I decided to focus this month’s Energy News on how Idaho’s water story is historically intertwined with our electricity system. But the times are changing.

Our Aquatic Endowment

Idaho is the whitewater state, crisscrossed by large rivers connecting our mountain wilderness to the Pacific Ocean. Idahoans use these rivers to enjoy quiet solitude and whitewater excitement. The snowpack that melts and flows down these rivers provides the vast majority of the water that Idahoans use at home and work. Salmon, steelhead and other iconic fish use these rivers to migrate among important habitats during their life cycles. Idaho’s rivers and the cold, clear water they channel are part of Idaho’s heritage.

Eyeing our aquatic endowment, in the early 1900s, the federal government began building massive dams in Idaho and across the greater Columbia River system.

The Army Corps of Engineers dammed the mainstem Snake and Columbia rivers for flood control and navigation. The Bureau of Reclamation built dams farther upstream on these river systems to store and release irrigation water. To pay for much of this system, Congress created the Bonneville Power Administration to market the power generated at these dams to the public and deliver it by building and operating the bulk of the region’s transmission infrastructure.

Elegant Finances Endanger Salmon

In one way, this was an elegant solution: use the money from electricity generated by falling water to pay for storing and delivering that water. But this financial decision significantly affected Idaho’s iconic salmon and steelhead. Dams impede the fishes’ ability to migrate between the vibrant spawning grounds of Idaho’s mountains and the Pacific Ocean. And because the dams have historically been operated to respond to irrigation needs, flood control and power generation, the health of Idaho’s wild salmon and steelhead took a back seat.

Since the early 2000s, the balance has been tipping to include salmon concerns into the calculus of our highly managed river system. After federal agencies included Idaho’s salmon on the endangered species list, federal dam operators had to adapt practices to recover salmon populations. Over the years, agencies have tried to move more fish past the dams with fish ladders, trucks and barges. When these mitigation measures were found to be insufficient, the agencies spent millions of dollars to raise more fish in hatcheries. And the agencies have, reluctantly, tried to replicate natural river conditions  by increasing spring river flows to "spill" over the dams.

Specific to the electricity system, the costs of these mitigation efforts are included in the cost of power that BPA markets. But the "spill" over the dams does not run through the electricity generators, thereby reducing electric output from the system.

A New Opportunity

The tension between hydroelectricity and salmon is obvious. But because of a rapidly changing electric world, we have a new opportunity to resolve this issue. Today, the Northwest electric market is flush with low-cost power as new wind projects and other renewable energy projects have been built in our region and across the West.

Our efforts to help Idahoans and others conserve energy are also helping. For example, regional energy conservation programs now save as much electricity each year as a natural gas power plant produces. This combination of more low-cost power and very slow growth in energy demands means that our region has a variety of ways to maintain our low-cost reliable electricity while addressing the primary barrier to salmon restoration.

Over the next several months, ICL will be working with regional allies to talk about this new opportunity. One of the major issues to be resolved is how to ensure a reliable electric system while restoring salmon. What we are learning is that, when you consider the system of federal dams as a whole, no single part is important in maintaining a reliable and affordable system. Today, it is the system that matters, not any specific dam.

Stay tuned as we learn more and share it with you.