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Commentaries and editorials

Outlook Blurs for Fish, Power Initiative

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian - October 23, 1999

Doubts threaten to fray Gov. John Kitzhaber's idea
of the region buying the BPA

Gov. John Kitzhaber's newest proposal for saving both salmon and low-cost power in the Northwest is mired in disagreement that could stop it in its tracks.

In an impassioned speech last month in Seattle, Kitzhaber said the four Northwest states should band together to propose a new authority that would govern the operation of federal dams in the Columbia Basin. That would at least mean the Northwest could tell Washington, D.C., how to operate the dams so that fish are saved and rates held in check.

But Kitzhaber took it a step further, floating a revolutionary idea: the Northwest states, he said, could purchase outright the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal agency that markets electricity generated at federal dams. That means the Northwest would have direct control over dam operations, even though the dams still would be owned by American taxpayers and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Reaction, at first, was positive. But fault lines already have appeared.

Officials from Washington state, which consumes 60 percent of the electricity sold by the BPA, are skeptical of any proposal that might cut their amount of low-cost power. Gov. Gary Locke "needs to look after Washington's interests first," said Keith Love, a Locke spokesman. "Our first responsibility is to Washington residents and ratepayers."

Northwest tribes are suspicious of giving too much authority to the states, whose interests, they say, favor power and punish fish. "It's in the parochial interest of the states to continue generating cheap power," said Don Sampson, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "We have not seen them do what's right to save salmon."

Aides to Dirk Kempthorne, Idaho's new governor, think Kitzhaber is foolish to attempt presenting a proposal to members of Congress before the end of the year and before having a clear consensus from the region. "Anything we do is going to be huge," said Mike Field, an Idaho appointee to the Northwest Power Planning Council. "It's a little ambitious."

Lack of agreement regionally could doom Kitzhaber's proposal, because establishing a new governance structure would need congressional approval.

"It's hard to imagine legislation involving state and tribal governments going anywhere without the support of states and tribes," said Ed Sheets, former executive director of the power council.

Kitzhaber aides, however, remain optimistic.

Eric Bloch, an Oregon appointee to the power council and one of the architects of Kitzhaber's plan, said the governor expected disagreement about the structure of a new governing body.

No one, Bloch said, has argued against the need for one.

"There's a lot being said at this point by the various parties that sound like impediments to the discussion beginning," Bloch said. "But a this point, I believe it's just the parties staking out positions in the regional discussion that most everybody acknowledges must happen."

Indeed, interviews with political leaders, industrial users of the Columbia River's power and conservationists reveal consensus that Kitzhaber is right to press for a new way of making decisions about power production and fish restoration.

But that's where agreement ends.

"Kitzhaber is clearly onto something and gets an A for his goal," said Bruce Lovelin, executive director of the Columbia River Alliance, which represents aluminum companies and other industrial users of the Columbia and Snake rivers. "He gets a much lower grade for the strategy and politics of making it happen."

Lovelin and Steve Johnson, executive director of the Washington Public Utility Districts, said Kitzhaber erred in flying to Seattle and announcing the proposal in a speech to the Seattle City Club. The action, both said, raised fears in Washington that a new governance structure may result in Oregon utility companies seizing low-cost power now used in Washington.

"I would rather have seen Kitzhaber come up here and sit down for a few hours with Locke and then maybe together announce a common strategy," Johnson said.

Washington state officials also worry about giving states authority for enforcing federal laws such as the Endangered Species Act.

"We want to be assured there would be no reduction in the protection of endangered fish," said Tom Karier, a Washington appointee to the power council. "We're not assured that would be the case."

Bloch said that while Kitzhaber would like to see the region gain greater control over how to protect fish and wildlife, he is not seeking to soften wildlife protections. "If this issue ever turns into an effort to dumb down federal environmental standards, we would abandon it," Bloch said.

Kitzhaber's strongest support comes from Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, who co-wrote draft principles for the plan. John Etchart, a Montana appointee to the power council, said the four Northwest governors have scheduled a conference call in November to evaluate Kitzhaber's proposal.

Brett Wilcox, president of Northwest Aluminum Co. in The Dalles, lauded Kitzhaber for pointing out the linkage of fish restoration and power production in the Columbia Basin. "He's one of the first political leaders to stand up and say this is not working," Wilcox said. "He recognizes that you can't solve one problem without solving the other."

That support is echoed by conservationists.

"We certainly support Kitzhaber taking this initiative," said Mark Glyde, a spokesman for the NW Energy Coalition, a Seattle-based conservation group. "We're waiting, and I think a lot of people are waiting to see whether this idea has real political traction."

Kitzhaber, for his part, remains steadfast.

"There is consensus that unless we get a regional dialogue we're going to lose out," he said. "Frankly, that's all we need."

by Jonathan Brinckman
Outlook Blurs for Fish, Power Initiative
The Oregonian, October 23, 1999

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