YAKIMA, Wash. — A rare challenge is under way for the right to operate two hydropower dams on the Columbia River, just upstream of prime salmon-spawning habitat in the Hanford Reach.
Investor-owned PacifiCorp, which does business in Washington as Pacific Power, has teamed with the Yakama Nation Indians, hoping to take over the Priest Rapids and Wanapum dams.
The Grant County Public Utility District, which built the dams nearly half a century ago, won't give them up without a fight.
The actual applications for the license aren't due to the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission for two years, and a final decision will be made in 2005. But the process to win the interest and allegiance of Northwesterners is in full swing.
William J. Judge, the district commission's president, has wrapped Grant County in the U. S. flag against PacifiCorp, which was acquired by Glasgow-based ScottishPower in 1999.
"We've overcome long odds against European tyrants before," he said when PacifiCorp announced its intentions last summer.
Meanwhile, PacifiCorp and the Yakama Nation, applying for the license as the Yakama Hydroelectric Project, have taken an earthy, New Age approach.
"A unique agreement between the Yakama Nation and PacifiCorp will combine ancient wisdom and contemporary knowledge within the context of the economic and business realities of the new century," the partnership said in a summary of its plans.
At stake is almost 2,000 megawatts of electricity, nearly double the amount needed to light a city the size of Seattle.
The new license will be granted for 30 to 50 more years.
"There are very few competing applications for relicenses," said Michelle Veloso, spokeswoman for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. "All other things being equal, there is a slight preference for the existing licensee."
And that's only fair because the Grant County district built the dams, says Linda Jones, the district's licensing manager.
"We're confident we're going to get the next license," Jones said. "We don't have a blemish on our record."
The dams, about 10 miles apart, are between the town of Vantage and the Hanford nuclear reservation.
Last year, the Grant County district sought to prevent other utilities from competing for the operating license, citing a 1954 congressional decision that limited the project's license to only the district or a state agency.
Ten Northwest utilities asked the federal commission to open up the process, and it did.
Spokane-based Avista Corp. has one of the contracts for electricity that helped finance the bonds for construction of the project.
"We would prefer to have Grant continue there," said Avista spokesman Hugh Imhof. "Most of this is based on Grant being a known quantity--we've dealt with them for a long time--whereas PacifiCorp is an unknown, and their partnership with the tribe, we have no idea what that would mean."
But PacifiCorp and the Yakama Nation say they can do a better job of managing the dams for natural, cultural and recreational resources while improving efficiency of the operation and spreading the economic benefits around the region.
"This is a balance between a good business plan and the dedication of resources to environmental stewardship," said Preston Harrison, who works in the Yakama Nation's economic development office in Toppenish.
In 1855, the 14 bands and tribes that make up the Yakama Nation ceded 10 million acres in central Washington--including the section of the river that includes the dams--to the U. S. government.
The treaty guarantees the Yakama Nation's historic role to manage fish, wildlife and other cultural resources in the territory.
The district has a long-standing relationship with the Wanapum band of Indians, about half of whom are employed by the utility. Many live in a district-built village adjacent to the dams.
But the band is not recognized by the federal government, and it has no title or rights to any of its traditional homelands.
Puget Sound Energy, another of the project's contract holders, believes that it's critical the dams be operated in a fish-friendly manner, given the billions of dollars the region has invested in salmon protection, says Bob Royer, spokesman for the Seattle-based utility.
"Maybe, ultimately, the Yakama expertise in fisheries could be valuable to the region," he said.
Royer wouldn't say whether Puget Sound Energy has a preference on relicensing and notes that the utility has taken the Grant County district to court over renegotiation of its power contract.
The Grant County district must sell about 63% of the power produced at the dams at wholesale cost to other Northwest power providers. But when its license expires in 2005, so do many of its sales contracts, as well as its obligation to sell power at cost.
If the district wins renewal, it would be able to keep 70% of the dams' power and sell the remainder to other Northwest utilities.
Neither the PacifiCorp-Yakama partnership nor Grant County district have made public yet much detail on the changes or improvements they would make if operating the dams for the next several decades.
Multiple public meetings are in the works along with other opportunities for comment as specifics of the license applications are formulated.