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Power Crunch Comes at Bad Time for Salmon

by Robert McClure
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 15, 2001

The high price of energy this winter means a financial crunch for people living in the Northwest. But for endangered runs of the region's signature fish, the high price of power could be another step toward extinction.

Faced with high costs for replacement power and rolling blackouts in California, the Bonneville Power Administration decided to run water through the dams this winter to make power instead of holding it back to help young salmon migrate to sea in spring and summer.

The decision came last month -- just weeks after the federal government committed to a host of pro-salmon measures, including providing plenty of water for the fish. That was a price the Northwest, in essence, agreed to pay in order to head off cries by environmentalists and many salmon scientists to breach four dams on the Snake River in southeastern Washington.

The Snake River dams are valued by farmers and others because they facilitate low-cost transportation to market for goods. But they are reviled by environmentalists and many fish scientists because, in various ways, they kill young salmon. Environmental activists were also outraged that the government invoked emergency provisions in making the water deal.

"The emergency is not that we're going to have blackouts or brownouts. It's a financial emergency," said Shawn Cantrell, Northwest representative of Friends of the Earth. "The fact is that, because of poor human planning, they're not living up to that deal."

Bill Arthur, Northwest representative of the Sierra Club, predicted that "the salmon are going to pay the price. We're going to have a massacre instead of a migration."

This dry and deadly year for young fish comes at a particularly bad time. In recent years, ocean conditions have improved, holding out the possibility of large salmon returns in three to five years that could help rebuild dwindling runs.

But without a strong water flow, fewer young salmon will make it to the sea. A strong flow directs them through the slow-moving pools behind the dams, where they are vulnerable to warm water and predators. Before the dams were built, the young fish were swept seaward by cool, fast-moving water. The dams themselves also injure some fish.

It's still possible -- though increasingly unlikely with each rainless day -- that bad weather could bring better news for salmon.

"The best solution that the agencies are saying is, in essence, pray for rain," Cantrell said. "That's their fish plan for now."

For its part, the BPA feels boxed in: If it buys too much power on the open market, it could endanger its ability to make a $700 million payment next fall on its dam construction debt to the federal government.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber last week joined environmental activists in calling on the BPA to skip the payment to avoid risking harm to the fish, but that's a long shot. Skipping the payment would open the BPA to criticism from members of Congress from other parts of the country who already view the hydropower project as federal largess to the Northwest.

If they were to prevail and dismantle the BPA, say those who oppose the skip-the-payment idea, it would hurt not only Northwest ratepayers but also salmon. The reason: The BPA sinks a lot of money -- about $105 million this year -- into projects to aid salmon recovery.

The water pushed through Northwest turbines to produce electricity during five days in January amounted to about one-fifty-fifth of the water that otherwise would have been available this spring and summer to help the salmon, according to BPA projections. The BPA already has spent nearly $400 million buying power instead of running the dams in order to preserve water for the migrating salmon, agency spokesman Mike Hansen said.

"For someone to say the fish are the first ones to pay the price is wholly inaccurate," Hansen said. "We have financial reserves, which are being drawn down. How far do we want to draw those reserves down?"

The decision to sacrifice some of this year's salmon run could come back to bite the BPA. President Bush, who came out foursquare against dam breaching in his campaign, recently rankled environmentalists when he remarked, "I don't notice anybody talking anymore about breaching the dams to save salmon" in the wake of power blackouts.

It turns out he's wrong. Environmentalists vow to continue their fight if the salmon runs keep declining. Under the deal cut by the Clinton administration, decisions about dam breaching will be revisited in three to five years -- just when this year's salmon are supposed to be returning.

Meanwhile, Indian tribes that rely on the Columbia and Snake salmon catches will look to the BPA for some immediate moves to help the fish. They say the agency has made a lot of money selling electricity to California at stratospheric prices, and they advocate spending those earnings for salmon-recovery projects.

"We can't allow BPA to profit by waiving salmon requirements," said Charles Hudson, a spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "Salmon have to remain part of the cost of doing business on the river.... We will not be bought off by some token offer."

Robert McClure
Power Crunch Comes at Bad Time for Salmon
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 15, 2001

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