Obama administration looks at PPL riverbed rent case

The U.S. Supreme Court has asked the Obama administration for an opinion on whether the Montana Supreme Court ruled correctly when it determined that PPL Montana must pay rent for the company’s use of riverbeds beneath its hydroelectric dams, media outlets reported.

The nation’s high court wants acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal, the Obama administration’s top attorney before the Supreme Court, to weigh in on the case. The move signals that the high court has taken an interest in the case and may eventually decide to hear it, reports indicate.

PPL Montana wants the Supreme Court to overrule a Montana Supreme Court decision from last March that ordered the company to pay $40 million in current rent, as well as damages for not paying rent for land its dams sit on from 2000 through 2007, plus even more in future rent.

The court decision means the land under the dams is like other public land that is rented out, such as to those who graze cattle or drill for oil.

PPL Montana said the state overstepped its authority and in August asked the U.S. Supreme Court to consider in the case. PPL said the Montana Supreme Court was wrong in claiming Montana ownership over 500 miles of riverbeds under multiple hydropower facilities.

Grey said the streambed case raises broad federal issues that go beyond PPL Montana’s business interests and has implications for the rights of streambed users including hydroelectric plant operators, ranchers, irrigators, cities, dock owners and recreationalists.

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Obama administration unveils new salmon restoration plan

Removing four dams on the lower Snake River is described as an “action of last resort” in a new salmon restoration plan submitted by the Obama administration.

While breaching the dams is considered a last resort, the revised plan also directs the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin studying removal of the Snake River dams. Those dams are the 635-MW Ice Harbor, 810-MW Little Goose, 810-MW Lower Granite, and 810-MW Lower Monumental projects.

U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., railed against Obama’s revised plan, saying it could lead to further job cuts and higher energy prices. Hastings is the highest ranking Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee.

“The Obama administration has put dam removal back on the table and delivered just what dam removal extremists have been demanding,” Hastings said. “No one should be fooled by talk of dam removal as a last resort when the Obama administration is immediately launching studies and plans for such action.”

American Rivers, a conservation group for healthy rivers, said the Obama plan is similar to the controversial plan adopted by the Bush administration and does little to help restore salmon populations.

“The new administration has kept the 2008 Bush salmon plan intact, which sets the bar so low that many Columbia and Snake River salmon and steelhead runs will remain at a high risk of extinction,” said Michael Garrity, the Washington conservation director for American Rivers.

The new plan was submitted to U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland. Environmentalists, fishermen and the state of Oregon are suing the federal government over a salmon restoration plan implemented by the Bush administration. The plaintiffs claim salmon populations won’t recover without removing the Snake River dams.

Last month, Judge Redden granted the Obama administration more time to revise the federal salmon restoration plan. The 30-day deadline extension gave regulators a chance to meet with all of the parties in an effort to settle the lawsuit. (HydroWorld 8/12/09)

The Obama administration said the new plan would strengthen mitigation programs aimed at improving salmon survival. What’s more, it would expand research and monitoring, and set specific biological triggers.

Meanwhile, Congress is considering legislation that could lead to the dismantling of the four dams. (HydroWorld 8/10/09)