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Court Puts Idaho Power’s Hells Canyon Water Quality Lawsuit Against EPA On Hold Until March
Posted on Friday, November 30, 2018 (PST)

A lawsuit filed in June by Idaho Power aimed at forcing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set temperature standards downstream of the utility’s Snake River dams in Hells Canyon was put on hold while the EPA completes the work to set the standards.


The state of Idaho in 2012 had asked the EPA to change its water temperature standards for chinook salmon that spawn downstream of the utility’s Hells Canyon Complex of three dams, but it had failed to act on the request. Idaho Power needs the EPA to set water quality standards in the river, including the temperature standard, so it can get an approved water quality permit as it proceeds with relicensing the three dams it owns on the Snake River.


The lawsuit, filed by Idaho Power in June in the U.S. District Court in Idaho, said that the EPA was violating environmental and administrative laws by failing to approve or disapprove water temperature standards that had been submitted in 2012 by the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality for the section of the Snake River on the Oregon-Idaho border.


The Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald E. Bush agreed in early November to stay the lawsuit while the EPA officially approves the temperature standard, ordering the EPA to make 30-day status reports until the stay ends on March 11.


“Essentially, this is what we wanted for six years,” Idaho Power spokesman Brad Bowlin said. “We’re optimistic things are moving in the right direction. This is definitely a good step forward.”


In June, Idaho Power said that the “suit is necessary to preserve its legal options regarding specific temperature standards for water flowing out of the company’s most downstream dam. While the suit proceeds, Idaho Power will continue working with the states of Idaho and Oregon to achieve water quality certification as part of the relicensing process.”


The stretch of the Snake River below Hells Canyon Dam is an important spawning area for fall chinook salmon that were listed in the 1990s as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.


The current temperature standard for water during the salmon’s spawning period changes from 19 degrees Celsius (66.2 degrees Fahrenheit) to 13 C (55.4 F) on Oct. 23. Under the proposed change, the temperature standard drops from 19C to 14.5C (58.1 F) on Oct. 23 and then to 13C on Nov. 6.


Idaho’s site-specific standard cites research from scientists and government agencies responsible for protecting the salmon showing that a temperature standard of 14.5 C continues to protect the fish. The science is supported by 25 years of increasingly successful spawning below Hells Canyon Dam, the utility said.


Idaho Power said the current temperature standards have never been met, at least with records going back to 1991, according to the Associated Press. The new standard, however, would be met in most years, the utility said.


The temperature of water flowing out of Hells Canyon Dam is a key hurdle remaining between Idaho Power and a new long-term license for its most important power source, the Hells Canyon Complex, which includes Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon dams. The utility’s 50-year license expired in 2005.


Also at issue is fish passage through the three dams: Idaho Power, as well as the state of Idaho oppose adding fish passage facilities, an addition to the dams that would reintroduce salmon and steelhead to upriver reaches. Oregon and the Shoshone Bannock Tribes are pushing for reintroduction.


Also see:


-- CBB, April 6, 2018, “Shoshone-Bannock Tribes Side With Oregon On Issue Of Fish Passage At Hells Canyon Dams,”


-- 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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