SANDPOINT — Idaho and the Bonneville Power Administration signed off on a $24 million settlement Thursday to compensate the state for wildlife habitat lost due to the construction and inundation caused by the Albeni Falls Dam.
“This agreement is not only good for Idaho wildlife, but also for the people who buy their electricity from Bonneville Power, wherever they may live in the Pacific Northwest. Annual mitigation costs will no longer be added to people’s power bills,” Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter said during a signing ceremony at the Columbia Bank Building.
Through the settlement, Idaho agrees that all of its interests in dam construction-and-inundation impacts have been mitigated through prior land purchases with BPA. Using BPA funding, the Idaho Department of Fish & Game has acquired 4,224 acres of wildlife habitat in the Panhandle.
Under the new agreement, BPA will provide nearly $7 million for long-term stewardship of those lands.
“This is a good deal, folks. It’s permanent. It’s going to get things done and it will be visible as it is now,” Fish & Game Director Virgil Moore said, referring to restoration work that are renewed the luster to the faded Pack River and Clark Fork deltas.
The stewardship funding will be invested by the Idaho Endowment Fund Investment Board.
“The interest generated by the fund will be enough to cover and care for the maintenance of all the acquired mitigation lands,” Otter said.
Elliot Mainzer, administrator of BPA, said the agreement was not an easy feat due to the importance of natural resources and the complexity of the legal issues. The true spirit of collaboration and creativity, however, enabled the parties to thread the needle and reach an agreement.
“We really are glad that we’ve got a sustainable framework for making sure that the work continues for the long term and that the state is able to really lean in and continue to make progress on the ground,” Mainzer said.
Bill Booth of the Northwest Power & Conservation Council said the demonstrable success of the Pack and Clark Fork delta projects was also instrumental.
“What’s been done out there is spectacular,” said Booth. “I do believe that these Clark Fork and Pack River projects are models for the region, really,” Booth said.
Ford Elsaesser, chairman of the Idaho Lakes Commission, acknowledged there were doubts that the deltas could be restored when Fish & Game Biologist Kathy Cousins took on the task of coordinating the projects.
“I don’t think we would be here today if Kathy hadn’t — and this is literally a true story — started out at the Pack River Delta with a shovel and a pail,” Elsaesser said. “I didn’t know there was a Pack River Delta until Kathy started this project.”
Lessons learned in restoring the Pack River Delta would go on to inform work restoring the Clark Fork Delta.
Elsaesser gave thanks to Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, former Priest Lake Rep. Eric Anderson for their work in bringing North Idaho water resource issues to the fore in the Legislature. That work has given the lakes commission a seat at the Columbia River Treaty renegotiations, brought stability to recreation seasons at Priest and Pend Oreille lakes, and equipped the state to fight off aquatic invasive species.
“None of us would have predicted this much progress 15 years ago, when Gov. Kempthorne first appointed the lakes commission,” Elsaesser said.
Otter, who like Keough is set to retire, said the settlement was a milestone and it was something that was on his “bucket list” when he became the state’s 32nd governor in 2007.
“I’ve got 128 days to go so you pushed it right to the edge,” Otter joked during the ceremony.
Keith Kinnaird can be reached by email at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @KeithDailyBee.