Of the Baker City Herald

Idaho Power Company has for the first time rejected a federal agencys request to spill water from Brownlee Reservoir to help chinook salmon swim downstream, and anglers and boaters might benefit.

Brownlee, which has been nearly full throughout the spring, wont fall as fast next month if Idaho Power focuses instead on producing power, said Dennis Lopez, a spokesman at the companys Boise headquarters.

That will keep boat ramps accessible, a boost to businesses in Huntington, Richland and other towns that depend on boaters and anglers dollars.

Idaho Power plans to begin lowering Brownlee after Independence Day, using the water to spin the power-producing turbines to capacity, Lopez said.

By the end of July, company officials expect the reservoir to be about 15 feet below full, Lopez said.

At that level, all the boat ramps on Brownlees shores are still in the water.

If the company complied with the National Marine Fisheries Services request to release 360,000 acre-feet of water for endangered fall chinook salmon, the reservoir would fall to about 28 feet below full at the end of July, Lopez said.

That would strand the boat ramps at Steck Park in Idaho and the Bureau of Land Managements Spring Recreation Site on the Oregon shore north of Huntington.

The ramp at Farewell Bend State Park would remain usable for some boats, although larger craft might not be able to launch there with the reservoir at that level.

Hewitt Parks ramp, on the Powder River arm near Richland, would remain open, as would the ramp at Idaho Powers Woodhead Park on the Idaho side.

Although Idaho Power has spilled more than 360,000 acre-feet from Brownlee in past Julys to help salmon, this years request is above the six-year average of 258,000 acre-feet, said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the Fisheries Service.

The largest release for salmon in that period was 420,000 acre-feet last July, Gorman said.

Idaho Power officials decided it was not in the companys or its 384,000 customers best interests to agree to the Fisheries Services plan, Lopez said.

The federal government is asking us to mitigate for the effects of downstream dams, he said.

He was referring to the four dams the federal government owns on the lower Snake River. Those dams are an impediment to salmon and steelhead, including the endangered fall chinook runs Brownlees water is supposed to help.

Salmon and steelhead cant swim upstream past Idaho Powers Hells Canyon dam, which doesnt have fish ladders.

Its a federal issue, and the federal government should fix it, Lopez said.

The federal government used to compensate the company for lost power production due to salmon releases, but it no longer does so.

Lopez said its possible the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which administers Idaho Powers license to operate Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon dams, could order the company to comply with the Fisheries Services proposed water release schedule.

Ultimately the decision lies with FERC, Lopez said.

Idaho Power has been working for several years on its application for a new license for the three-dam complex, the companys biggest source of power. The current license expires in 2005.

John Prescott, the companys vice president of generation, called the Fisheries Services request for Idaho Power to release water for salmon a blatant attempt to open our Hells Canyon operating license to get Idahos water now, and then make the grab permanent when the dams are relicensed in four years.

(The Fisheries Services) wants to boost our customers rates by taking control of the Hells Canyon project and running it for fish without regard for the energy needs of Idaho.

Prescott said Idaho Power plans to submit a letter to FERC protesting the Fisheries Services request.

Lopez said Idaho Power officials recognize its also possible that proponents of the so-called fish flushes could sue to force the company to release water to help flush salmon through the slack water of the many reservoirs the fish must pass on their journey to the Pacific Ocean.

Gorman agreed with Lopez that lawsuits are more likely given Idaho Powers refusal to release the amount of water the agency asked for.

Theoretically, every cubic foot of water is important, Gorman said. Theres no question we all have to make compromises because of the drought.

Besides the amount of water, the other main difference between Idaho Powers plan to operate Brownlee Dam for maximum power production and the Fisheries Services request is when water is spilled, Lopez said.

To meet its customers demand for electricity this summer, Idaho Power intends to pass more water through the dams turbines during the day, when power use peaks, he said.

Less water would pass through the dam at night.

But during fish flushes, the release of water generally is more consistent around the clock, Lopez said, resulting in a faster drawdown of Brownlee.

If Idaho Power were to comply with the Fisheries Services request, the company would have to buy more power on the expensive wholesale market, Lopez said. That probably would result in a rate increase for customers. The company has already boosted its rates by 25 percent this year.

In past summers Idaho Power actually has released more water for salmon in August than in July, Gorman said.

The August average since 1995 is 350,000 acre-feet, he said.

The Fisheries Service has not yet asked Idaho Power to spill water for salmon this August, Gorman said.