BOISE – A lawsuit by an Idaho utility against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concerning water temperature standards below a hydroelectric project where federally protected fall chinook salmon reproduce has been put on hold.
A U.S. District Court judge last week agreed to stay the lawsuit by Idaho Power against the EPA while the federal agency works to complete tasks requested by the state of Idaho in 2012.
“Essentially, this is what we wanted for six years,” Idaho Power spokesman Brad Bowlin said Friday. “We’re optimistic things are moving in the right direction. This is definitely a good step forward.”
Idaho Power in the lawsuit filed in June says the EPA is violating environmental and administrative laws by failing to approve or disapprove water temperature standards submitted by the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality for the Snake River below Idaho Power’s Hells Canyon Complex on the Idaho-Oregon border.
“Since filing of the complaint, the parties have engaged in discussions concerning actions EPA currently anticipates taking that may moot the issues in this litigation,” Idaho Power and the EPA said in a joint motion to stay the lawsuit at the end of last month.
Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald E. Bush in his order last week approving the stay required that the EPA file status reports every 30 days until the stay ends on March 11 or is otherwise terminated.
EPA spokeswoman Suzanne Skadowski said Friday the agency had no comment. The U.S. Department of Justice, which represents federal agencies in lawsuits, acknowledged receiving an email inquiry from The Associated Press on Friday but didn’t respond further.
Hells Canyon is a mile-deep canyon carved by the Snake River, much of it popular for recreation but inaccessible by road. The three-dam Hells Canyon Complex built from the late 1950s through the 1960s partially tamed the river.
Snake River fall chinook were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in the 1990s. A recovery plan released late last year by federal agencies identified the Snake River below the dams as the best spot for boosting the number of naturally reproducing spawning fish for the cold-water species.
Idaho Power cites studies by scientists with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries that concluded changing the water temperature standards would not harm salmon.
But the change could reduce the cost of electricity, the company said, saving customers up to $100 million over 50 years.
When the water temperature standards aren’t met, Idaho Power must pay for mitigation for potentially harming fall chinook. The proposed temperature standard change would mean Idaho Power would have to pay for less mitigation. Mitigation work involves improving habitat upstream of the dams with the goal of reducing water temperatures.
Specifically, the new proposed temperature standards would raise the allowable water temperature below the dams from 55.4 degrees to 58 degrees from Oct. 23 to Nov. 6.
Those two weeks are critical for fall chinook that are spawning and putting eggs in river bed gravel that might not survive if the water gets too warm.
Idaho Power said river temperatures under the current standard have never been met, with records going back to 1991. The company said the new standard wouldn’t be met in most years, but the level of mitigation to pay would still be less than under the current standard.
Idaho Power’s 50-year license for the Hells Canyon Complex with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission expired in 2005, and it has been operating the dams under annual licenses renewed each August.
Idaho Power officials have said the temperature standards are related to the relicensing but are also a stand-alone issue the company would like to get resolved.
Idaho Power supplies electricity to nearly 534,000 customers in southern Idaho and eastern Oregon. The Hells Canyon Complex in a normal water year produces about 30 percent of the company’s total annual power generation.
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