BOISE, Idaho — An Idaho utility has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency contending the agency failed to act on a request by the state of Idaho to modify water temperature standards below a hydroelectric project where federally protect fall chinook salmon reproduce.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday by Idaho Power Company in U.S. District Court seeks to force the agency to act on a 2012 request by Idaho allowing warmer water temperatures in the Snake River below the Hells Canyon Complex on the Idaho-Oregon border.
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.
Hells Canyon is a mile-deep (1.6-kilometer) 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.
Idaho Power in the lawsuit said the EPA is violating environmental and administrative laws.
"EPA's failure to take action is an intentional filibustering tactic designed to effectively deny approval," the company said.
EPA spokeswoman Suzanne Skadowski did not immediately respond Thursday to a phone message seeking comment.
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, which 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 Gov. C.L "Butch" Otter, a Republican, has also pushed for the new standard. In a Dec. 4 letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, he asked that the federal agency approve the proposed standards "so that it can become effective immediately."
But Chris Hladick, regional administrator for the EPA, responded on April 23 that the agency was focusing its efforts on coordinating with the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and others to resolve relicensing details.
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.
Brett Dumas, director of environmental affairs for Idaho Power, said the temperature standards are related to the relicensing but are also a stand-alone issue the company would like to get resolved.
On another front, Idaho Power in February petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to review a 2017 decision by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission dismissing the utility's request that it exempt the Hells Canyon Complex from an Oregon law requiring fish passage as part of relicensing. Idaho, meanwhile, has a law preventing wild fall chinook salmon from being transported above the dams.
That case has been put on hold while the two states and Idaho Power try to reach an agreement.
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.