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Conference Focuses on Columbia River's Major Issues

by Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin - July 19, 2002

"It doesn't take 20-20 eyesight to see growing cracks in the foundations of the Columbia River's institutional structure, says John Volkman, a partner at Stoel Rives Portland office and co-chair of the upcoming conference in Portland , Sept. 12 and 13 on the Columbia River titled "The Mighty Columbia: The Organic Machine." "It does take a keen vision to see solutions, however, particularly solutions that account for all of the river's values, economic, cultural and ecological."

Volkman is joined on the Conference faculty by, among others, Fred R. Disheroon, special litigation counsel to the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the United States Department of Justice. "There are many changes now in progress or that will likely occur very soon as to the uses and management of the Columbia River and it is imperative that the public and interested parties be fully informed as to those likely changes," Disheroon said.

"The Mighty Columbia" is an especially important conference because, says Volkman, "The Columbia River is the Northwest's most important natural resource -- its primary supply of energy generation and irrigation water, central navigation channel and flood control system. The river is also the home of the region's once-vaunted salmon runs. The Columbia has been operating under a series of treaties, laws and agreements that are decades old, in some cases almost 150 years."

History has forged a complex course for the Columbia, and it is unlikely to straighten out anytime soon. As John Shurts, general counsel of the Northwest Power Planning Council in Portland, and program co-chair, explains, "In 1980 Congress, in the Northwest Power Act, enacted a comprehensive settlement or deal intended in one package to resolve both the energy and salmon crises in the Northwest, a deal that had something in it for everyone and which pivoted largely on what was expected of Bonneville: Bonneville would be the entity that would oversee and fund the development of what new energy resources the region needed, and acquire and meld the cost of that new energy with the cheap federal hydrosystem energy, with a corresponding obligation to serve what power demands the region wanted.

"This would not only solve the energy problems in the region, it would also solve the salmon problem, in this way: The Columbia salmon problem was seen as almost entirely a hydrosystem problem, but one that could be solved with some important tweaks on how we manage the system and the flow of water through the system, with investments in dam passage technology, and with a few investments in off-site mitigation, especially hatcheries.

"Bonneville's acquisition of new energy resources would offset any losses of energy from the hydrosystem because of the operational changes needed for fish, while Bonneville's revenues from the ratepayers would largely pay for the necessary dam modifications and off-site mitigation. The Council was created to give the region -- through the Council's power plan and fish and wildlife program -- oversight and influence over Bonneville in carrying out these responsibilities.

"In 2002 it is fair to say the deal is irreparably broken, and probably never worked, mostly because Bonneville has never been adept at acquiring new energy resources, and now few want it even to try, as the region turns to a wholesale market and other mechanisms to provide what additional energy the region needs.

"In retrospect it was a bad idea ever to think Bonneville could or should play this role, and time has only made that seem obvious. But the region still needs new energy, and we have a lot of issues as to how we are going to get it, and what should be the role of the federal system and Bonneville in that new world. Moreover the fish problem has become far different -- 20 years of investments in hydro system improvements, different water management strategies, hatcheries and the like have helped, but the problem has still become more obviously a much larger ecosystem problem of which mainstem hydro is but a part -- a century and a half of degrading and changing all the habitats salmon live in, in which the solution is now seen as trying to restore habitat functions across the basin.

The Mighty Columbia conference will be held on September 12-13, at The World Trade Center in Portland, Ore. To view the full program agenda, read faculty biographies, or register, please visit

Among the presenters will be Roy Hemmingway, chairman of the Oregon Public Utility Commission, who will make a special address on the first morning of the conference. The Bonneville Power Administration will be represented by COO Steven Hickok, who will present on the "Federal View of the Columbia River." Donna Darm, past acting regional director of the National Marine Fisheries Service will join Fred Disheroon of the U.S. Department of Justice, and David Cummings, Office of Legal Counsel for the Nez Perce Tribe, on a panel discussion on the second day of the conference.

"We hope the conference participants will come away with the sense that not only is the Power Act deal essentially kaput, but also that we are at a new creative point --- what legal arrangements and institutions should we be creating to better fit the current context, while realizing at the same time not to be so confident as we were in 1980 that we really know at any one moment how to understand and solve these dilemmas for all time -- to be more aware of the uncertainties and contingencies as we create these tools", says Shurts. "These are controversial, hugely political and economic issues."

The Mighty Columbia conference is sponsored by The Seminar Group, an educational organization providing quality professional education throughout the United States and Canada. To register for this conference, view the full conference agenda or review faculty biographies, visit, or call 800-574-4852 to speak with the registrar.

Related Links:

Conference Focuses on Columbia River's Major Issues
Columbia Basin Bulletin, July 19, 2002

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