Nez Perce part of settlement on Hells Canyon water quality

Sep. 3—The Nez Perce Tribe and two conservation groups reached a settlement agreement with the state of Oregon that they say will improve water quality at and below the three-dam Hells Canyon Complex on the Snake River and possibly lead to sockeye recovery in Wallowa Lake.

The tribe and the conservation groups — Pacific Rivers and Idaho Rivers United — sued the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality in 2019, arguing the state violated the federal Clean Water Act when it certified the proposed relicensing of Idaho Power's dams at the southern end of North America's deepest river gorge.

Specifically, the tribe and conservation groups said by certifying that Idaho Power's relicensing proposal would meet the state's water quality standards, it was failing to ensure toxic pollutants like mercury and methyl mercury, which develop in the reservoirs and accumulate in the flesh of fish, would be addressed. They also charged the state wasn't doing enough to compel the company to reduce the release of warm water when fall chinook are spawning below the dams, nor doing enough to promote eventual fish passage above the dams.

According to a news release from the tribe, Oregon agreed to work with the tribe to develop a pollution budget known as total maximum daily load for the three-dam complex. Oregon and the company will also create a $1.5 million fund to help pay for the pollution plan.

In addition, Oregon pledged to work with the tribe on studies evaluating the potential reintroduction of spring chinook and steelhead in Pine Creek, a tributary that joins the Snake River upstream of Hells Canyon Dam. According to the news release, Oregon agreed to fund a joint effort between the state and tribe to reintroduce sockeye salmon to Wallowa Lake.

"The Tribe and Oregon have been close partners for years in advancing shared natural resource goals including restoring the lower Snake River and its salmon and steelhead runs by replacing the four federal dams on the lower Snake River," said Samuel Penney, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe. "Despite our previous challenges in reaching an agreement on the water quality certification for the Hells Canyon Complex, I thank Governor (Kate) Brown for her leadership, perseverance, and demonstrated commitment in resolving the Tribe's concerns."

The conservation groups said the settlement will improve conditions for threatened and endangered populations of Snake River salmon and steelhead.

"As a result of this litigation, water quality will improve in the Snake River much sooner than it would have otherwise," said Greg Haller, executive director of Pacific Rivers at Portland, Ore. "The Hells Canyon Complex has significant impacts on Snake River salmon and steelhead and these water temperature improvements are a critical step forward for the watershed."

Barker may be contacted at or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.