A long-running dispute over reintroducing salmon and steelhead above a complex of dams in the Hells Canyon section of the Snake River is nearing its conclusion, thanks to a proposed agreement among Oregon, Idaho and Idaho Power Co.

Under the terms of the agreement, announced earlier this month, Idaho Power will pay $20 million over the next 20 years to improve water quality, reduce stream sedimentation, conduct research and boost the production of spring Chinook salmon at the Rapid River Hatchery to 4 million juvenile fish. The hatchery produces 3.2 million fish now. That investment will come in addition to a planned $400 million program that Idaho Power is undertaking to improve the water quality in the Snake River basin, according to Idaho Power.

Idaho Power operates the dams—Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon—which were built in the 1950s and ’60s and now account for about 70 percent of the utility’s annual hydroelectric production.

The construction of the dams blocked the migration of salmon and steelhead on the Snake River. The dispute between Idaho and Idaho Power, on one side, and Oregon started 15 years ago, when Idaho Power sought to renew its license to operate the dams with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Oregon pressed to enforce a state law it’s had since 2001, which requires fish passage for native fish at any dam blocking a waterway. Idaho opposed such efforts, arguing that any reintroduction of fish in the Snake River or its tributaries should require the approval of the governor and the state Legislature.

The agreement means that Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality will not include reintroduction of salmon or steelhead on the Snake River above Hells Canyon as part of its water-quality certification in Idaho Power’s relicensing application, according to the Idaho Power news release.

Oregon DEQ Director Richard Whitman applauded the agreement, saying Idaho Power will operate Brownlee Dam to reduce water temperature, critical for migrating salmon and steelhead downstream. He said the other planned investments will help provide more cold water in the system.

“I am very pleased with the more aggressive steps that Idaho Power has proposed to address water-quality problems in the Snake River basin,” Whitman said in a statement.

Idaho and Oregon will move forward with issuing water-quality certifications for the Hells Canyon Complex of dams.

Before 1850, the Snake River basin could produce about 1.4 million Chinook salmon, 200,000 coho and 150,000 sockeye each year, according to estimates from the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

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