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Kulongoski Challenges Hydro Dam Spills

by Joe Rojas-Burke
The Oregonian, July 20, 2004

The governor joins a lawsuit against increased flows
to generate electricity that he says would harm salmon fisheries

An industry-backed effort to boost power production at Columbia and Snake River dams seemed all but certain to begin Aug. 1 with the federal government's recent approval. Supporters said the action would save electric ratepayers tens of millions of dollars. Federal fisheries authorities said no harm would come to threatened salmon.

But certainty evaporated when Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski became an active opponent, joining conservation groups and Native American tribes in a lawsuit contending that thousands of salmon would be killed by the changes in dam operations.

"For the state of Oregon to join a lawsuit like this is a pretty big deal -- this is not just an enviro group that is pro-fish," said Joe Whitworth, executive director of Oregon Trout, a conservation group not involved in the lawsuit.

In a stinging rejection to electric utilities and many large industrial users of electricity, Kulongoski made the unusual decision to join the lawsuit last Friday. He is alone among Northwest governors in doing so. A coalition of more than 60 utilities and other entities had signed a letter in late June to the governor calling his support "critical to move this proposal forward."

The dispute will be settled by Portland-based U.S. District Judge James Redden, who is overseeing the federal government's effort to protect salmon from hydroelectric dams. In a ruling last year, Redden concluded that the government's attempt to use habitat restoration and other steps to compensate for the harm caused by dams fell short of standards required by the Endangered Species Act.

Kulongoski caught the utilities by surprise.

"We're disappointed to see the state of Oregon take a different track," said Scott Corwin, an executive with PNGC Power, a cooperative of 15 electric utilities in the Northwest, on Monday. "We think that the proposal would be helpful to the economy of Oregon and continue protections for fish."

The operators of the Columbia River federal hydropower system normally release water over spillways during spring and summer to help young salmon bypass power-generating turbines. This year the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal energy wholesaler, developed a plan to end spillway releases a month earlier than usual at two dams and six days earlier at two others, thus allowing dams to harness more water for generating electricity.

The BPA said extra power sales to California and other regions would enable it to reduce charges to Northwest utilities by $18 million to $28 million. To compensate for fish likely to be killed by the proposed changes, the BPA committed to spend $9.6 million on new or expanded salmon conservation efforts. Federal fisheries authorities approved the plan earlier this month, judging the BPA's proposed offsets adequate to make up for any threatened Snake River fall chinook killed going through power-generating turbines.

Kulongoski flatly rejected the conclusions by the National Marine Fisheries Service, however. And he questioned whether the electricity rate reductions would be worth the damage to salmon fisheries.

"No one has been able to guarantee that they will lower rates for consumers as a result of shutting off spills to generate and sell more power," Kulongoski said in a written statement. "What is guaranteed, however, is that shutting off the spills will kill more fish."

Kulongoski is the only one of four Northwest governors to oppose the plan to boost hydroelectric power production. His decision reflects increasing friction with the Bush administration over natural resource policy. For instance, the Democratic governor recently went on national television to deride the Republican administration's policy on roadless national forests as misguided.

But the governor's decision also reflects the influence of the recreational and commercial fishing industry. The governor, in announcing Oregon's opposition to the federal plan, pointed out that sport anglers spent more than $700 million last year in Oregon.

Fishing groups are concerned about the domino effect of even a slight loss of threatened Snake River salmon. Further depletion of that stock would force regulators to place stricter limits on all other salmon runs that happen to overlap with the listed Snake River fish.

"This has really pushed the sport fishing community to the brink," said Liz Hamilton of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association.

Judge Redden will hear arguments from both sides July 28.

bluefish does the math for your convenience: BPA initially estimated that eliminating summer spill would provide 1.15 - 1.49 million Megawatt*hours (MWh) of "surplus" electricity to sell (typically to California) at an estimated average price of $32/MWh (yielding $37 - $46 million). The latest plan has reduced the amount of spill reduction and the estimated savings. BPA estimated that elimination of summer spill could potentially provide a 2% electricity rate reduction. Prices of course will vary with time of day and electricity market conditions.

Related Pages:
Oregon Offers Little Support for Summer Spill Proposal by Bill Rudolph, NW Fishletter, 3/15/4

Joe Rojas-Burke
Kulongoski Challenges Hydro Dam Spills
The Oregonian, July 20, 2004

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