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Columbia Is Not a Storage Battery

by Staff
The Daily Astorian, February 13, 2001

And Mother Nature bats last

The worsening energy crisis is an overdue lesson in just how spoiled we were in treating the Columbia River watershed as a giant electricity storage battery. We have no excuse for being surprised. There is no such thing as endless cheap power. We were fools to think otherwise.

The power we rely on in the Northwest is not cheap. Never was. We just never had to pay anything like its true cost, because until recently we only counted gains from industrial and urban development, not losses to the watershed's health.

Particularly for Native Americans, who theoretically are protected by treaty rights, converting the Columbia into a monster Energizer Bunny had direct costs. A good case can, and will, be made that every under-priced kilowatt hour the Northwest has used in the last 50 years has added to the accrued debt we owe people with legal title to 50 percent of once-thriving salmon runs.

Even without a changing climate and regulatory stupidity in California, we would have gotten to this place.

This crisis almost certainly will abate somewhat as new non-hydro power plants come on-line and as we inevitably return to wetter weather, recharging depleted reservoirs. But things will never be the same. More competition and population mean the era of low electric rates is going to end. To one extent or another, we're all going to suffer, and none more so than those on low or fixed incomes.

The Bonneville Power Administration, enabled by The Oregonian, has fostered the idea that water left flowing in the Columbia represents billions in spending on salmon recovery. If any other type of business counted its unsold inventory as a good deed for the environment, they'd be laughed at. Only now, when supplies are tight, does it truly cost BPA anything to let water go for salmon and other non-industrial purposes.

BPA and our region must not revert to thinking of the Columbia as only a mechanism for making power. Its uses and its meaning are much broader and deeper. If we're going to retreat from anything, let's retreat from selling steeply subsidized power to aluminum smelters. Even if the tribes would let us off the hook on river restoration - and they won't - it still would not be the right thing to do.

The Columbia is supposed to be a complex, messy, fluctuating natural system. In treating it as a utility industry asset, we've gone astray. And Mother Nature bats last.

Columbia Is Not a Storage Battery
The Daily Astorian, February 13, 2001

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