We often  talk about the environmental  impacts of coal and gas. But you may not be aware of the environmental costs of clean hydroelectric power. You may just flip a switch and your light comes on, but so much more is going on behind the scenes. Here’s a story of the Hells Canyon Complex of dams that straddles the Oregon-Idaho border and its impacts to salmon and steelhead.

About the Hells Canyon Complex

Deep in the Snake River Canyon sits the Hells Canyon Complex, one of America’s largest private hydroelectric facilities. Comprising three dams built in the mid-1950s-Hells Canyon, Oxbow and Brownlee-the complex  generates almost a quarter of Idaho’s electricity. Along with power, these dams provide boating, fishing, picnicking and other recreation opportunities in the reservoirs they back up.

One thing they don’t provide is passage for migrating bull trout, steelhead or salmon. These large concrete plugs lack ladders to move fish upstream; nor do they employ spill techniques to help move fish downstream. They effectively block native fish from accessing historical territory and migration routes.

As Idaho Power seeks to relicense the Hells Canyon Complex, the issue of whether the dams should accommodate migrating fish is back on the table-with a twist.

A Long Journey

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission licenses dams for up to 50 years. A license includes standards to ensure that a dam meets applicable water quality standards and does not unlawfully harm protected species.

A license also includes measures-such as restoring habitat, operating fish hatcheries and prescribing power operations-to mitigate for any environmental harm. Because of the long life of these licenses, it’s vital that we make sure FERC enforces strong standards and effective mitigation.

The current Hells Canyon license expired in 2005. Since then, Idaho Power has operated under an annual renewal until a new license is granted. Despite years of effort, Idaho Power has not found common ground with Oregon, Idaho and FERC on ensuring that the dams meet water quality standards that protect fish and that mitigation measures are implemented to protect bull trout, steelhead and salmon.

Oregon wants FERC to include a program to reintroduce and expand populations of salmon and steelhead in Oregon tributaries upstream of the Hells Canyon Complex.Idaho Power recently asked FERC to prohibit Oregon from including such protections. That means fish would have to wait up to 50 years for another chance to pass the dams.

Idaho Law Adds a Wrinkle

On the other hand, an Idaho law prohibits reintroduction of listed species, including salmon and steelhead. During negotiations over the FERC license, Idaho Gov. C. L. “Butch” Otter wrote this to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown stating:

While I appreciate Oregon’s willingness to limit these reintroductions to Oregon tributaries, the agreement would result in reintroduced fish entering Idaho waters. Such occurrence would violate long-standing Idaho law and policy opposing reintroduction of any species without the express consent of the Idaho State Legislature and executive branch. Based on state law and in part on our past experiences with reintroduced species (i.e., wolves), Idaho cannot and will not  agree to the reintroduction of salmon or steelhead above Hells Canyon Dam.

ICL’s Question to You

Many people are debating how FERC should respond. At ICL, we have a different question: Should Idaho even have a law that prohibits reintroducing salmon and steelhead to historic streams? If so, are the state and Idaho Power going too far by invoking such a law? Learn more and tell  Gov. Otter what you think.