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Forest Service relays dam concerns to Idaho Power
By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
U.S. Forest Service officials claim Idaho Power Company has failed to acknowledge that its three hydroelectric dams in Hells Canyon have harmed fish and wildlife habitat along the free-flowing Snake River downstream from the dams.
The Forest Service wants Idaho Power to address those problems, and to propose ways to fix them.
That's one of the main themes in the Forest Service's 272-page response to Idaho Power's draft application for a new license for the three dams.
Idaho Power's current 50-year license for Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon dams expires in July 2005.
The company is in the middle of a years-long process of applying for a new license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Idaho Power released its draft application in September 2002. The document, including appendices, totals about 25,000 pages.
The company has been collecting comments about the draft application from the public and from agencies such as the Forest Service.
Idaho Power has received comments from dozens of people and agencies, company spokesperson Dennis Lopez said.
He said Idaho Power officials have not yet reviewed the Forest Service's response and were not yet ready to comment on them.
Although the Forest Service contends that the draft application both lacks important data and includes misleading conclusions, agency officials emphasize that the Forest Service supports Idaho Power's request for a new license.
"Our position isn't dam removal," said John Denne, public affairs officer for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. "But we have responsibilities to the American public, and we need to highlight to Idaho Power the potential operations that could affect national forest resources."
The Forest Service's role is neither to advocate for nor against hydroelectric complexes, Denne said, but rather to ensure they do not damage the publicly owned resources the Forest Service is supposed to protect.
The Wallowa-Whitman, based in Baker City, is one of two national forests that border Idaho Power's three-dam complex.
The other is the Payette National Forest in Idaho.
Officials from both forests helped write the Forest Service's response to Idaho Power's draft application, said Lynn Roehm, who works for the Wallowa-Whitman and coordinated the response team.
Most of the acres in the two national forests border either Hells Canyon Reservoir, the farthest downstream of the trio, or the Snake River downstream from Hells Canyon Dam, Roehm said.
There is no national forest land bordering either Oxbow or Brownlee reservoirs, he said.
Congress has designated 31 miles of the Snake River downstream from Hells Canyon Dam as Wild, and 40 miles as Scenic.
According to the Forest Service, Idaho Power's dams and reservoirs are "largely responsible for degradation of sediment and sediment-dependent resources" in the wild and scenic stretches of the Snake River.
Idaho Power's hydroelectric complex has affected the river in two primary ways, according to the Forest Service.
First, the reservoirs trap most of the silt, sand and gravel that, in an undammed river, would create sandbars and other habitat for wildlife, and supply spawning gravels for salmon and other fish.
Second, the Forest Service contends, water that passes through Hells Canyon Dam contains very little sediment and thus has "excess energy" that erodes existing sandbars and terraces.
According to the agency's response: "The Forest Service maintains that the Snake River immediately below Hells Canyon Dam is, in fact, sediment hungry' because the supply of material from upstream sources has been interrupted by the (Idaho Power reservoirs)."
The shortage of sediment affects not only fish, but also people, Roehm said.
Most boaters who ride rafts or jetboats through Hells Canyon prefer to camp on sandy beaches, which are both softer and cooler, Denne said the latter being an especially important attribute in a canyon where triple-digit temperatures are a certainty in summer.
But Roehm said both Forest Service and Idaho Power studies suggest that a lack of beaches large enough to accommodate campers is forcing them to pitch their tents on nearby rock terraces.
Besides being uncomfortable, those areas sometimes include remnants of Native American villages, he said.
Those historic sites are protected by federal law, Roehm said, and could be damaged either by displaced campers or by the river itself.
Water levels in Hells Canyon Reservoir
Roehm said Forest Service officials also are concerned about Idaho Power's request that it be allowed to change the reservoir's level by as much as 10 feet per day.
The current limit is five feet.
Doubling that could strand boats and make it harder for anglers to reach the water, according to the Forest Service.
Agency officials also are urging Idaho Power to study in more detail how changes in the amount of water released from Hells Canyon could affect the river downstream, Roehm said.
That fluctuation, known as the "ramping rate," could increase erosion, harm fish habitat, and affect boaters and anglers, according to the Forest Service.
Water quality and fish
The Forest Service contends that as water flows through the dams it loses too much oxygen, but gains too much nitrogen.
Both conditions can kill fish.
Roehm said the Forest Service supports Idaho Power's plan to add oxygen to the water at Brownlee Reservoir by venting the turbines in the dam and by injecting air into the water.
The Forest Service also endorses the company's proposal to reduce the amount of dissolved nitrogen by installing flow deflectors on the Hells Canyon Dam spillway.
Turbulence below dams can boost the amount of dissolved nitrogen in the water to levels lethal to fish.
Roehm said Forest Service officials are concerned that Idaho Power has underestimated the costs for adding boat ramps and making other improvements to parks along the three reservoirs.
Roehm said Forest Service officials are eager to discuss their concerns about the draft application during a meeting with Idaho Power representatives tentatively set for early March.
"We want to make sure we clearly understand Idaho Power's proposal," he said. "We are willing to work with them in any way prior to their filing the final license application."