A US federal appeals court in San Francisco has ordered the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to rescind an operating licence granted to the Eugene Water & Electric Board (EWEB) for its Leaburg and Walterville power plants on the McKenzie river in Oregon. The court ruling asked FERC to renew the licence to the plants only if the utility provides better fish passageways and diversion canal screens at the hydro plants.

A number of environmental groups, Indian tribes, and state and federal wildlife agencies had jointly filed the lawsuit claiming the utility had not taken sufficient action to protect endangered salmon, steelhead and trout. But the court ruled against the challengers on other key issues including a dispute over how much water should be left in the McKenzie for migrating fish. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wild-life, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service joined environmentalists and the tribes in the legal challenge.

Leaburg and Walterville power plants generate about 6% of the City of Eugene’s electricity needs. Opponents claim that the operating licence allowed EWEB to divert too much water out of the McKenzie, threatening the dwindling populations of fish. FERC had set a minimum river flow volume of 1000cfs, less than the 1400cfs minimum state and federal fish agencies said was needed.

Utility officials said the ruling would not have any immediate effect on power rates or on operation of the two hydroelectric facilities, although it will likely delay proposed upgrading work valued at US$12M, such as installing fish screens at Walterville and rebuilding the fish ladder at Leaburg dam. That work was required as part of the new 40-year licence issued to EWEB in 1997.