A three-judge panel at the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on June 21 denied a petition for review by the Idaho Conservation League of a decision of the Bonneville Power Administration to move forward with a change in how the Albeni Falls Dam in the Pacific Northwest operates during winter months without first preparing an environmental impact statement under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Lake Pend Oreille, which serves as the dam’s reservoir, is jointly managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. In the initial winter months of the dam’s operation, starting in the late 1950s, the Corps fluctuated the level of the lake, but in some years the Corps held the lake’s level constant. From 1997 to 2011, the Corps held the lake’s level constant. In 2011, the agencies confirmed in an environmental assessment that they planned to return to a more flexible approach and allow the lake level to fluctuate.
The June 21 court ruling said that NEPA only requires the preparation of an environmental impact statement when a proposed federal action is major, but “where a proposed federal action would not change the status quo,” an environmental impact statement is not required. The three-judge panel held that the agencies complied with NEPA when they finalized their 2011 decision without preparing an environmental impact statement. The panel held that holding lake levels constant from 1997 to 2011 did not change the status quo, and reverting to the previous regime of fluctuating the lake levels did not change the status quo either. The panel held that because the agencies’ decision adopting flexible winter operations did not trigger NEPA’s requirement to publish an environmental impact statement, petitioner’s challenges to the environmental assessment’s finding of no significant impact were moot.
The Bonneville Power Administration is charged with marketing the power generated from the dam. The Albeni Falls Dam straddles the Pend Oreille River, which connects Lake Pend Oreille and the Columbia River. Like other dams in the system, the Albeni Falls Dam is operated to balance a variety of competing objectives, such as flood control, power generation, navigation and wildlife conservation. Lake Pend Oreille serves as the dam’s reservoir. When water is released from the lake, it drives turbines that generate electricity. This decreases the reservoir’s depth and causes its shoreline to recede.