BOISE -- The federal agency overseeing Columbia River and Snake River salmon recovery has decided against requiring the Idaho Power Co. to add fish ladders on its Hells Canyon dams, angering environmentalists but addressing utility complaints that such requirements would be too costly and ineffective.
As recently as Oct. 28, the National Marine Fisheries Service was considering requiring fish-passage facilities on Idaho Power's 1,167-megawatt, three-dam system on the Snake River as a condition of the company's license renewal. Cost of the fish ladders has been estimated by the Fisheries Service at more than $100 million.
In Nov. 16 e-mails obtained by The Associated Press, the agency said it is focusing instead on recommending Idaho Power set aside money to clean up the river above the dams so the waterway will one day provide good habitat for salmon and steelhead. Both are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.
"I don't know how to say this gracefully, so I'll just spit it out," wrote biologist Ritchie Graves in the e-mails to Oregon and Idaho state officials. "The National Marine Fisheries Service has determined it will not require fish passage at the Hells Canyon complex in this license."
The deadline is today for submitting recommendations to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for the Boise-based utility's application to operate the half-century-old Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon dams for another 30 years. FERC officials aim to have a draft license ready for public comment by July.
Graves, reached by The Associated Press in Portland, Ore., declined to comment on the e-mail, saying the agency's recommendation would be made public today.
But a federal official familiar with the proposal said the Fisheries Service wants FERC to make Idaho Power instead set aside a fund "in the low hundreds of millions of dollars" to remediate "horrible degradation" of the Snake River upstream of the hydroelectric complex. Fish passage could be considered once pollution has been mitigated.
For instance, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality studies of sediment at the bottom of Brownlee Reservoir still uncover traces of DDT, more than three decades after the pesticide was banned.
Idaho Power declined to comment on Graves' e-mail. It is waiting for the agency's recommendations to be made public today, spokesman Dennis Lopez said.
But in general, Lopez said, the utility is "open to discussion" but believes agriculture and municipalities -- not the dams -- are responsible for Snake River pollution.
"We add or remove nothing from the river," said Lopez. "When you continue to stack on things in the relicensing process, that ultimately will have an impact on rates for our customers."
The utility's relicensing application already calls for setting aside $324 million to offset environmental impacts.
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife officials are still asking for FERC to require fish passage to be installed, saying that's the best way for some runs of salmon and steelhead to reach healthy spawning tributaries.
The Fisheries Service "position doesn't change Oregon's desire to try to re-establish the connection of those upper river streams with the ocean," said Craig Ely, the department's northeast regional manager, based in La Grande.
Meanwhile, the conservation group American Rivers said not adding fish-passage facilities threatens Snake River salmon recovery.
"It's troublesome to have this sudden reversal," said Connie Kelleher, associate director of the group's Seattle office. "The dams block off 80 percent of historic habitat for fall chinook. At a time when (the Fisheries Service) is responsible for developing recovery plans for fish, they're taking actions that are inconsistent with recovery."
The Shoshone-Bannock Indian tribe, whose members historically harvested chinook salmon that swam up the Snake River as far as Shoshone Falls in south-central Idaho, say they want to see both habitat restoration and fish ladders.
"Studies need to start immediately, so we don't have to wait another 30 years to address this issue," Claudeo Broncho, the tribe's fisheries policy representative, told the AP. "When they put the dams in, they eliminated the runs. It took away the Shoshone and Bannock way of life."