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IPUC To Decide If Idaho Power Can Pass On $220 Million In Hells Canyon Complex Relicensing Costs
Posted on Friday, October 06, 2017 (PST)

The Idaho Public Utilities Commission will decide next week whether or not to grant Idaho Power authority to pass along more than $220 million in Hells Canyon Complex relicensing costs to its Idaho and Oregon customers.


On Oct. 11 the Commission will hold a settlement hearing to determine if $220,845,830 of Hells Canyon relicensing costs incurred through December 31, 2015 can be charged to ratepayers. According to Brad Bowlin, Idaho Power communication specialist, the timing of the request aligns with the 26 years the company has dedicated to relicensing and staff turnover.


“This process has been going on for so long a lot of our staff are at retirement age and not going to be involved anymore. We thought it wise to go through with a prudency review,” Bowlin said.


The Jan. 4 Notice of Application said the Idaho Power staff began relicensing efforts in 1991. The company filed its new license application with FERC in 2003, but a new long-term license has not been issued and Idaho Power has been operating the Hells Canyon Complex under annual licenses since 2005.


Idaho Power estimates it will incur an additional $20 to $30 million annually to obtain a new, long-term license. If FERC does not issue a new license until 2021, Idaho Power estimates relicensing costs to be between $350 and $400 million.


On a long list of environmental concerns two remain high – fish passage and methylmercury concentrations found in fish downstream of the complex.


Fish passage is a sticky wicket between the states bordering Hells Canyon.


An Oregon feasibility study claims suitable, upstream habitat exists for endangered steelhead and chinook salmon, but in 2016 Idaho Gov. Butch Otter reiterated a conundrum in a letter addressed to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown; it takes an act of the legislature to allow reintroduction of endangered species into his state and Idaho lawmakers have not passed a law allowing steelhead and salmon upstream of the complex in the Snake River.


Staff for the Oregon and Idaho governors announced this summer they would come up with a resolution by September, but no agreement has yet been brokered.


Another critical issue facing not only relicensing of Hells Canyon, but dams across the nation, is the accumulation of mercury and it’s evil twin, methyl mercury, created in oxygen-free environments at the bottom of very deep reservoirs. U.S. Geological Survey scientists are studying Brownlee Reservoir, the lowest of the three man-made lakes, not only to help Idaho Power comply with Idaho and Oregon department of quality requirements but to create a model.


Austin Baldwin of USGS said this past year’s epic winter and spring added a whole new data set.


“This has been a really interesting year for us,” Baldwin said. “Up until now flows have been low to medium, but 2017 gives us an interesting high water picture and things are much different as far as concentrations of mercury coming into the reservoir.”


Baldwin said it takes several years to get the variability needed to understand the whole picture of mercury’s effect on reservoirs and the downstream rivers.


USGS scientists will spend a few more years collecting data and monitoring, Baldwin said, as they further understand how mercury turns to methyl mercury and how it gets into food web.


“This study and model may shine a light on how reservoirs might improve management to minimize mercury – a problem across the West and around the world,” Baldwin said.


Also see:


-- CBB, May 5, 2017, “Hells Canyon Fish Passage: Idaho, Oregon Governors' Letter Sets Up Process To Resolve Differences”


-- CBB, Feb. 10, 2017, “Idaho Power Caught Between Idaho, Oregon Laws Regarding Fish Passage At Hells Canyon Complex”


-- CBB, Dec. 16, 2016, “Oregon, Idaho Differ On Clean Water Act Interpretations Regarding Snake River’s Hells Canyon Complex”


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