Poll reveals overwhelming support for Hells Canyon and salmon restoration

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Boise — Nearly 8 of 10 voters who live in the Idaho Power service area think the company should be held responsible for restoring the ecological health of Hells Canyon, according to an independent poll released today.

In addition, 71% of the people polled believe salmon restoration — both upstream and downstream of Hells Canyon Dam — should be required in any new federal license for the company' s three-dam Hells Canyon Dam complex.

The poll, commissioned by Idaho Rivers United and American Rivers and released today with concerned fish biologists and business owners, was conducted to gauge citizen concern over the license renewal process for Idaho Power' s Hells Canyon dams. The current Hells Canyon license expires in 2005. The new license could govern operations at the dams for the next 30 to 50 years.

While the poll shows that people living in Idaho Power's service area generally view the company favorably, 79% also believe the utility is ultimately responsible for reversing degradation of the Snake River caused by the dams — including declines in salmon habitat, beach erosion, sediment buildup, water pollution and other issues.

At a Tuesday press conference, a fisheries biologist and the co-owner of a Hells Canyon river outfitting business called on Idaho Power, which operates the dams at a profit, to reinvest in the public resources they use to generate electricity.

"A healthy Hells Canyon is critical to my business and other tourism related businesses in Oregon, Washington and Idaho," said Carole Finley, who with her husband, Jerry Hughes, owns Hughes River Expeditions of Cambridge, Idaho. "This poll tells me that I am not alone in my concern over the long-term health of this spectacular place."

"This relicensing is an opportunity for Idaho Power to show true corporate responsibility by stepping up and making investments in restoring Hells Canyon," Finley said. "During the course of 18 years of doing business in the Canyon, we' ve seen first hand the impacts of current operations at the dams. This next license must require Idaho Power to do a better job of protecting one of America' s most special places."

Finley' s company is the longest operating outfitter in Hells Canyon, which was designated by Congress in 1975 as one of America' s Wild & Scenic Rivers. Finley says wildly fluctuating flows and a lack of sediment movement have destroyed beaches and wildlife habitat in the Canyon.

"The Snake in Hells Canyon is still one of our nation' s most beautiful rivers," Finley said. "But Idaho Power should not be allowed to degrade it further. If fact, I believe the company has a responibility — to our children, and their children — to begin the process of healing and restoring the beaches and habitat they' ve impacted."

Roy Heberger, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fish biologist, said the Hells Canyon dams have had tremendous impact on the ecology of West-Central Idaho and Eastern Oregon.

"Hells Canyon is said to be the Grand Canyon of the Northwest," Heberger said. "It could also be said that Idaho Power' s three-dam Hells Canyon complex is the Glen Canyon Dam of the Snake River. Like the Colorado in the Grand Canyon, the Snake River in Hells Canyon is broken and needs to be fixed."

Heberger said current dam operations wiped out once native salmon and steelhead runs above the dams, blocking the flow of important ocean nutrients to the Boise, Payette, Weiser and other river basins. The dams also impact water quality, the timing of flows and the movement of important, habitat forming sediment and other species like bull trout, red band trout and white sturgeon.

"All of these impacts must be evaluated and addressed in the relicensing process," Heberger said. "Idaho Power created these problems, and they have a responsibility to address them."

With the completion of the Hells Canyon complex in the late 1960s, 95 miles mainstem salmon habitat was cut off to migrating fall chinook. Steelhead and spring chinook lost access to important tributary streams, like the Weiser, the Boise, the Owyhee, the Lower Payette and the and the Malheur. In addition, habitat and water quality were affected downstream, impacting salmon and steelhead populations now listed under the Endangered Species Act.

While Idaho Power has traditionally balked at the idea of fish passage and other restorative measures as too expensive and disruptive, the poll found that well over 60% of voters within the Idaho Power service area would be willing to pay a up to $1.50 more per month for the technology upgrades needed to allow fish to move past the dams.

"People care about the health of their rivers," Heberger said. "This poll also indicates that electric customers are willing to help pay for improvements. Now, Idaho Power must do its part."

CONTACT:

Jenna Borovansky, Idaho Rivers United (208)-343-7481;

Sara Eddie, Advocates for the West (208) 342-7024 ext. 6;

Amy Souers, American Rivers (206) 213-0330 ext. 23