HELLS CANYON — Idaho farmers who rely on Snake River water for irrigation fear they could one day be stuck with a $1 billion-plus bill for a plan by the State of Oregon to help endangered fish.
As a condition of relicensing Idaho Power Co.’s three Hells Canyon dams on the Idaho-Oregon border, Oregon leaders have proposed reintroducing endangered steelhead trout and salmon into Pine Creek, which originates in Oregon and spills into the Snake River upstream of Hells Canyon Dam. Under Oregon’s draft Clean Water Act certification proposal, Idaho Power would be expected to trap the fish upstream of the dam and truck them for release downstream, enabling them to migrate to the Pacific Ocean.
Marilyn Fonseca, hydropower program coordinator for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, said her state has developed a phased-in fish reintroduction plan spanning two decades and would expand into other tributaries based on the experience at Pine Creek. Fonseca said Oregon considers fish passage to be an integral part of meeting the state’s own U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-approved water-quality standards.
Should Oregon eventually reintroduce steelhead and salmon in tributaries upstream of the nearby Brownlee Dam, endangered fish would have access to a broad reach of the Snake River through Idaho, forcing the state to manage the system for the new endangered species. That would raise the bar on water-quality standards and place additional demands on the river’s fully allocated storage and natural-flow water rights. Snake River water users upstream predict they’d face a cascade of new expenses and regulations.
“It’s not a reach to say this could potentially impact every use of water in Southern and Eastern Idaho,” said Norm Semanko, the outgoing executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association. The association represents nearly all of the water users in the state.
Attorney Al Barker, who represents Boise Valley and Owyhee Reservoir water users, objects that Oregon’s draft certification would allow that state to unilaterally make decisions on introducing endangered fish into tributaries of a shared waterway.
Even if Oregon were to limit fish reintroduction to Pine Creek, Barker said irrigators could face new requirements to improve water quality and augment flows for the benefit of salmon and steelhead in the Hells Canyon Reservoir.
“There are consequences that need to be addressed and thought through that Oregon is not taking into account,” Barker said.
Caught in the middle of the dispute is Idaho Power, which has been working nearly 15 years to relicense the three dams that produce nearly one-third of its power portfolio and could be forced to comply with conflicting Idaho and Oregon Clean Water Act certifications.
State vs. state
Idaho officials saw the potential for a battle over fish reintroduction as far back as 2003, when Idaho Power first applied for a new federal license to operate the Hells Canyon dams. The legislature passed laws requiring its blessing — and the governor’s — before fish and wildlife could be introduced within Idaho’s borders. But legislators envisioned they’d be grappling with the federal government, not a neighboring state.
“This is pretty unprecedented,” said Sam Eaton, legal counsel and deputy administrator of the Idaho Governor’s Office of Species Conservation. “Does one state veto the other state? As far as my understanding, from discussions and research, there’s really nothing like this.”
In response to Oregon’s plan, the Idaho Legislature recently updated its laws, clarifying that Idaho’s primacy over introduction of wildlife within its borders applies to other states in addition to the federal government.
In a more symbolic gesture, the Legislature also passed a joint memorial expressing its opposition to fish reintroduction due to the “drastic impacts on irrigated agriculture, industry, water supply and electric generation.”
Eaton said he is encouraged that Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown have begun negotiating to resolve their states’ differences. But they’ll have to work quickly. The deadline to complete the Clean Water Act certifications is July 29.
They must be issued by each state’s department of environmental quality. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — an independent agency that regulates the interstate transmission of electricity — won’t be allowed to make any changes to the certifications, and Idaho Power will be obliged to follow them both.
“We’ve finally got everybody at the table who needs to be at the table,” Eaton said. “It’s not that Oregon is backing off of (reintroduction) or anything like that, but I think they might be reassessing priorities about where they want to focus their efforts.”
Brian Hockaday, a spokesman for Brown, said the governor is committed to collaborating with Idaho to resolve the issue, and conversations are ongoing.
“We’re considering all viable options and taking a look at new approaches,” said Hockaday, who declined to offer details of possible compromises.
Several years ago, Semanko’s association commissioned an economic impact study of a federal proposal to reintroduce another endangered species, bull trout, into southwest Idaho tributaries of the Snake River. The study estimated the reintroduction would cost irrigators upward of $1 billion to make improvements such as retrofitting infrastructure with fish screens to keep the protected fish out of diversions.
Semanko considers the estimate to be conservative if applied to Oregon’s planned salmon and steelhead reintroduction, which could impact an even wider geographical area.
“The cost is just astronomical,” Semanko said. “I think it’s interesting that we haven’t heard a single retort or rebuttal to the notion that if these fish are reintroduced above Hells Canyon, there would be major Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act requirements placed upon the residents, farmers, businesses and industries in Southern and Eastern Idaho.”
Idaho’s Committee of Nine, which represents watermasters of the major federal irrigation projects on the Upper Snake River, and the Idaho Irrigation Pumpers Association have also come out against reintroduction.
Lynn Tominaga, executive director of the groundwater users’ organization, worries about power rate increases for irrigators, based on Idaho Power’s estimate that it would cost more than $100 million for a system to capture the salmon and transport them for release below Hells Canyon Dam.
Irrigators say they are already boosting the river’s flow to help salmon below the dams. Jerry Rigby, an attorney for the Committee of Nine, emphasized Upper Snake irrigators reached an agreement with the Nez Perce Tribe in 2004 requiring them to release water, according to a formula based on the supply outlook, to help salmon below the Hells Canyon dams.
“We are already stretched to our absolute limit to do flow augmentation with the flushing flows,” Rigby said.
Kevin Lewis, executive director of Idaho Rivers United, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving Idaho waterways, contends reintroduction into Pine Creek would have little impact on Idaho, given that the fish would be confined by dams to Hells Canyon Reservoir. He also believes poor water quality incapable of supporting salmon and steelhead upstream of the Hells Canyon dams relegates expansion of reintroduction into other tributaries to a longterm possibility, at best.
“Oregon realizes they have a tributary that’s healthy, and they’re entitled as part of their water-quality certification to take that step,” Lewis said.
On Nov. 23, 2016, Idaho Power filed a petition asking FERC to intervene and resolve the dispute.
Idaho Power argued that the so-called Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution pre-empts Oregon from imposing the fish passage requirements on Idaho Power. FERC dismissed the petition on Jan. 19, deciding the request was premature.
Idaho Power spokesman Brad Bowlin said the company has since filed a motion asking FERC to reconsider its stance, but the issue remains on hold, as FERC has only two active commissioners and lacks a quorum. But Bowlin said the company remains hopeful negotiations between the Oregon and Idaho governors will bear fruit.
“That would be best for everybody concerned if we can find some middle ground,” Bowlin said.
FERC has also concluded that the current water quality in the Snake upstream of the dams is too poor for salmon and steelhead survival. Bowlin said Idaho Power has invested millions annually to mitigate for the impacts of its dams and has already launched water-quality improvement initiatives with relicensing in mind.
Ralph Myers, Idaho Power’s water quality program manager, said the company’s proposed Snake River Stewardship Program would seek to improve water quality along a 30-mile stretch of river from Swan Falls Dam to Homedale, west of Nampa in southwestern Idaho. The plan would be carried out over roughly 25 years. The project would deepen and narrow the river to increase flow velocities and decrease temperatures. Silt would be applied to shallow areas of the river by the banks — where the water flow slows and warms — creating seasonal floodplains.
Idaho Power tested the feasibility of the approach last fall, dredging a small portion of the river and applying silt to expand Bayha Island, located 5 miles downstream from Swan Falls Dam. Myers said Idaho Power also hopes to work with private landowners to plant trees and vegetation to shade about 150 miles of tributaries in the region.
He said the company is also working to convert landowners in the Grand View area south of Boise from flood irrigation to sprinkler systems to keep sediment out of the river. They’ll also be bringing in fresh gravel — which is critical for the life cycle of fish and supporting aquatic insects — in reaches where gravel has been bound by silt.
Idaho Power has also partnered with the Riverside Irrigation District to switch irrigators to high-phosphorus water from some tributaries to reduce nutrient inflows into the Snake.
Jim Chandler, Idaho Power fisheries program supervisor, said the company also invests $5 million annually in its hatchery program. The company stocks 1.8 million steelhead, 3 million spring chinook salmon, 1 million summer chinook salmon and 1 million fall chinook salmon per year.
But Lewis, with Idaho Rivers United, considers hatchery fish to be a poor substitute for their wild counterparts.