A Surplus of Contention,
by Bert Caldwell
There's an old saying that in the West, whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting. Well, right now there is enough fighting going on in the Northwest you couldn't blame many officials if they reached for their whiskey.
Two decisions announced Friday underscore how contentious the allotment of water has become.
In Portland, U.S. District Court Judge James Redden granted a temporary injunction to fishing and environmental groups that want more water spilled through Snake River dams. Higher spills, they argue, will increase the numbers of juvenile salmon passing downstream to the Pacific Ocean. Redden's order, based on his May 26 opinion, says a NOAA Fisheries opinion on the dams' effect on fish did not adequately assess all risks to endangered salmon runs.
He ordered the agencies that operate federal dams on the Snake to increase summer spills from Lower Monument dam down through McNary Dam. The result for Northwest residents and businesses that depend on the Bonneville Power Administration for all or some of their power will be an estimated $67 million in higher costs that will be passed on through higher rates, perhaps an average of 2 percent.
Meanwhile, Avista Utilities announced it will seek permission to split the licenses for its Spokane River dams. Despite more than three years of consultations with a wide variety of government and public-interest groups, the utility has been unable to fashion a relicensing application -- due by July 31 -- acceptable to all involved. Flows through its Post Falls project are the most contentious issue. Separating Post Falls from four other dams now licensed as one would allow Avista to secure a license for the less controversial Upriver, Monroe Street, Nine Mile and Long Lake dams while discussions continue regarding Post Falls.
Conflicting demands for water from users above and below the dam have the utility trying to split the baby, and contending with proposed conditions that would so greatly increase the costs of operating the facility that it would no longer make economic sense. Conceivably, Avista could surrender a separate Post Falls license and let someone else deal with the headaches.
That's not likely to happen. Most participants in the deliberations object to a split, and there's little incentive for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency responsible for issuing licenses for dam operation, to take up the Post Falls dam separately. If the issues preventing agreement on that project cannot be resolved by the end of July, Avista can submit the draft license application finished earlier this year and continue to operate all the dams under temporary, renewable licenses. One Northwest dam operated for more than 20 years with a succession of temporary licenses.
Even if an agreement can be reached, the outcome will surely mean higher bills for Avista ratepayers. The relicensing of the utility's two Clark Fork River dams in 2000 went very smoothly, but a settlement approved by FERC entailed a commitment by Avista to spend $225 million over the 45-year life of the license to remediate the dams' environmental impacts and improve recreation facilities, among other things. Those added costs have been passed on to ratepayers. The utility has already spent $10 million on the relicensing of the Spokane River dams.
Friday's events are by no means the only ones that reflect conflicting demands for water, or how the region continues to wrestle with the impacts of dams built decades ago to harness the Northwest's seeming abundance of H2O. The Pend Oreille County Public Utility District, despite the expenditure of $10 million, has been unable to permanently renew a license that expired three years ago. And, directly related to differences about water releases from Post Falls, are questions about the capacity of the Rathdrum Aquifer and how it affects flows in the Spokane River.
As the Northwest grows, as the Spokane County/Kootenai County area grows, we encounter the limits of the most basic of resources to meet human requirements as well as those of irreplaceable wildlife. The estimated $67 million impact of Judge Redden's ruling will add to roughly $6 billion the region has committed over 10 years to sustain salmon runs. Not all of that money has been spent wisely, but federal officials estimate every run of endangered fish in the Snake increased at least 33 percent between 2000 and 2004. So far, 2005 runs have been a disappointment. What we do not know about our resources costs us plenty.
What we do know tells us the choices we make in the future will also have costs. When supply of a resource is finite but demand potentially infinite, prices go up.
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