- Associated Press - Thursday, December 14, 2017

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Idaho officials have reached a tentative agreement approving a utility company’s $216.5 million in relicensing expenses for a three-dam hydroelectric project on the Snake River on the Idaho-Oregon border.

The Idaho Public Utilities Commission on Wednesday said it’s taking public comments through Jan. 5 on the proposed agreement with Boise-based Idaho Power involving the Hells Canyon Complex.

“It represents a compromise for both sides,” said commission spokesman Matt Evans. “It’s less than Idaho Power initially requested.”

The proposed agreement, which Evans said could be approved in February at the earliest, doesn’t call for a rate increase. That would take a separate request from Idaho Power also requiring the state commission’s approval.

The company in December 2016 requested about $220 million to cover costs from 2003 to the end of 2015 as it seeks a new license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The company’s 50-year license expired in 2005, and it has been operating the dams under annual licenses renewed each August.

A significant hurdle to getting a longer license is that Oregon officials are refusing to agree to the relicensing until salmon and steelhead can access four Oregon tributaries that feed into the Hells Canyon Complex, as required by Oregon law for the relicensing.

But Idaho lawmakers have prohibited moving federally protected salmon and steelhead upstream of the dams, which could force restoration work on Idaho’s environmentally degraded middle section of the Snake River.

“The states of Idaho and Oregon are working to resolve those issues,” said Idaho Power spokesman Brad Bowlin. “It’s one of the last remaining obstacles.”

Another problem is that elevated mercury levels blamed in part on agricultural runoff extend 60 miles (97 kilometers) downstream of the Hells Canyon Complex to the Salmon River confluence. The company has been working with farmers to try to reduce agricultural runoff, including switching from flood irrigation to more efficient sprinkler systems. That work is included in the $216.5 million.

In January, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rejected the company’s request to exempt the Hells Canyon Complex from the Oregon statute. The company had argued the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution that has to do with federal authority over states pre-empted the Oregon law.

Idaho Power has 534,000 customers in southern Idaho and eastern Oregon. The company generates 39 percent of its electricity from 17 hydropower facilities. The main producer is the Hells Canyon Complex.

“We’re certainly looking forward to the point when we can get a new, long-term license,” said Bowlin. “In the meantime, the complex continues to be our lowest-cost source of clean, renewable energy.”

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