The US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has decided on a methodology to licence eleven dams on the Snake River in Idaho.

Snake River, a major tributary of the Columbia River, has a series of dams owned by Idaho Power whose licences have already expired or have very little time left. All the dams are within a few hundred miles of each other. As the projects are also close to each other, in terms of relicensing time lines, the agency has been looking for the best approach to deal with the licence applications, while considering the cumulative effects of the dams.

Environmental groups, fishers, natives, white water rafters and recreationists have been lobbying for years for the removal of the dams.

Licences for three projects – 75MW Bliss, 60MW Lower Salmon Falls and the 18MW Upper Salmon Falls – all expired last December. They and the 12.5MW Shoshone Falls project, whose licence expired in May 1997, are all within a 57-mile stretch of the Snake River in southern Idaho close to the Upper (8.3MW) and Lower Malad (13.5MW) projects, whose licences expire in July 2002. About 120 miles downstream is the 81.8MW CJ Strike; its licence expires in November 1998.

Further downstream is the 391.5MW Hells Canyon project, with its licence expiring in July 2003, and the 9.5MW Swan Falls plant scheduled to expire in June 2008.

Idaho Power filed to relicense Bliss and Upper and Lower Salmon Falls in 1995 and Shoshone in 1997. It is currently collaborating with the FREC to prepare applications for the other projects.

In view of the large amount of work required to evaluate the licence application for each project, FERC proposed four approaches for licensing the dams, and has now selected the method by which FERC staff would prepare a site-specific environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Bliss, Lower Salmon Falls, Upper Salmon Falls and Shoshone Falls projects, which would include a cumulative analysis of all eight Idaho power relicence projects. FERC says it will carry out environmental documents for CJ Strike, Hells Canyon, Swan Falls and the Malad as their applications are filed.

Discussing the requests made by other stakeholders, FERC said, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game wanted a multi-project analysis for anadromous fish to begin immediately, prior to licensing. The National Marine Fisheries Service called for a basin-wide analysis followed by project-specific EIS. The Forest Service wants the basin-wide analysis and project-specific EISs to be simultaneous for some projects, but wanted study plans for Hells Canyon relevant to cumulative analysis to be deferred.