It’s Getting Hot in Hells Canyon

Posted on February 2, 2017 by Martha Pagel

The state of Oregon has turned up the heat in Hells Canyon.  The burning question, so to speak, is whether a state can require passage and reintroduction of anadromous fish as a condition of certification under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act for relicensing of an existing hydroelectric project.  The issue gets hotter because the particular project involved  -- the Hells Canyon Complex (“HCC”), owned by Idaho Power Company (“IPC”) -- is located on the Snake River, which forms the border between Oregon and Idaho.  The State of Oregon has issued a draft 401 certification with detailed conditions for passage and reintroduction of anadromous fish into a tributary on the “Oregon side” of the river.  Idaho is opposed to reintroduction of any fish species above Hells Canyon Dam, leaving IPC in the middle.

Making a very long and complicated story short, for more than 13 years IPC has been working with state and federal agencies and stakeholders toward relicensing of the HCC.  The project consists of three developments, each with a dam, reservoir, and powerhouse.  In 1955, FERC issued a 50-year license with recognition that construction of the project would block fish passage and eventually lead to extirpation of anadromous fish above the dams.  As a result, the initial FERC license included mitigation conditions to offset fish impacts, and additional mitigation was provided under a subsequent settlement agreement. 

After more than a decade of studies, meetings, and negotiations, it looked like IPC and the states were on track for general agreement as to the terms and conditions of compatible, but separate 401 certifications to be issued by Oregon and Idaho – except as to the issue of fish passage and reintroduction. Despite Idaho’s objections, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) issued its draft 401 certification for public comment on December 13, 2016.  The draft relies on a number of existing state water quality standards as the legal basis for requiring fish passage and reintroduction, though none of the standards is directly on point. ‎

Public comments on the proposed 401 certification are due February 13.  Objections relating to the fish passage and reintroduction conditions are likely to focus on whether such conditions are generally within the scope of 401 certification for FERC-licensed hydroelectric projects, and, if so, whether Oregon’s specific water quality standards provide a sufficient regulatory basis for the proposed ODEQ action.  ‎The comments may also raise questions about the baseline for mitigation and whether impacts to fish due to construction of the project – as opposed to on-going operations -- have already been fully mitigated.  And then there’s the question of Idaho’s opposition. 

ODEQ will consider the comments before issuing a final 401 certification decision.  If the states are unable to resolve their differences over the passage and reintroduction issue, it’s likely to get a lot hotter in Hells Canyon. 

And finally, a disclosure that the HCC relicensing issues hit close to home for ACOEL:  I am part of a team representing IPC, and other College members are very much involved on both sides of the issue.  There’s a lot we won’t be able to talk about at the next annual meeting!