the film
Commentaries and editorials

Hearing Covers Debate
on Detailing Fish Costs

by Jim Camden
Spokesman Review, July 8, 2006

Power customers may get specifics

PASCO - Telling Northwest electricity customers how much of their monthly power bill is used to save fish would be useful consumer information, some representatives of businesses, farms and utilities said Friday.

But if knowledge is truly power, then why not take it a step further, countered environmental and tribal representatives. Tell them how much of their electricity bill also goes for irrigation, or supporting the barge industry or paying off failed nuclear plants.

Some of the usual voices in the region's long-running salmon controversy gathered at Columbia Basin Community College on Friday for a special congressional subcommittee hearing on Rep. Cathy McMorris' proposal to make the costs of the Endangered Species Act more "transparent."

If passed, the proposal would require the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets electricity from the federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers, to tell utilities that buy that power just how much of the cost each month went to saving salmon and steelhead under that landmark law. The utilities could then pass that information on to their customers in the next month's bill.

"Consumers need and deserve open access to this information and how these factors are affecting their pocketbooks," McMorris said.

While the concept is novel, the arguments from a panel of witnesses were familiar - and not always directly on the point of whether electricity bills that arrive in Northwest mailboxes should have a line for salmon costs.

Some farm groups used the opportunity to say Congress should spend more to build reservoirs along the Columbia system, which they contend could help with salmon recovery and provide extra water to generate power when the river is low.

Ricardo Espinoza, president of the Pasco School Board, said rising power costs are cutting into that district's budget. The share of the electricity bill that went for salmon recovery, which he estimated at $1.1 million over the past five years, could have been used to buy books or computers, or hire math teachers to help students pass their Washington Assessment of Student Learning tests, he said.

And several witnesses - as well as McMorris and Rep. Doc Hastings of the Tri-Cities, a fellow Republican and the only other member of Congress in attendance - used the hearing to take a shot at U.S. District Judge James Redden, of Portland, who has consistently said the federal government's plan to save salmon is inadequate.

BPA supplies about 40 percent of the region's power, primarily to public utilities and certain large industrial customers. Some cities, including Spokane, get electricity from private utilities like Avista. In addressing McMorris' proposal, BPA Administrator Steve Wright said he supports more consumer information, but the bill as written might be difficult. While the agency has spent some $7.8 billion over 20 years on fish and wildlife programs, not all of that is related to the Endangered Species Act. Some programs are required by other laws, and some do double duty, partly for the ESA and partly for those other laws.

"It's hard to separate out those costs," said Wright. If the bill could be rewritten to cover all salmon costs, it would be easier, he added.

Terry Flores of Northwest River Partners, a group of businesses, farm interests and utilities, said salmon recovery costs are significant and electricity customers deserve to be aware of that. "It is irrelevant whether people believe the 'right' amount is being spent," she said.

But BPA's budget, which details fish and other wildlife costs as well as other items, is already available to the utilities, said Nancy Hirsh, policy director for the Northwest Energy Coalition. The utilities - which have a variety of other costs that make up their total bill - already are able to tell their customers what those costs are.

In fact, Inland Power and Light, a Spokane-based public utility, already does just that, showing its customers the overall salmon costs on monthly bills.

Some BPA cost estimates are also misleading, said Rebecca Miles, chairman of the Nez Perce tribe's executive committee and a member of the Columbia River Inter Tribal Fish Council. For example, BPA estimates the revenue it loses when water is "spilled" over the dam to flush young salmon, rather than run through the turbines to generate electricity.

To flush young Snake River chinooks in 2004, the agency estimated it lost $75 million in revenue from power that could have been generated by that water. A signboard prominently displayed in the hearing room said that meant the 20 returning endangered salmon on that run cost $3.75 million, but Wright said it's not possible to say that, because those salmon haven't returned yet as adults.

But BPA has to spill the water to comply with the law, Miles said. It can't violate the law to save money any more than a business could save money by violating worker safety laws.

"BPA does not own the river, it shares the river," said Hirsh.

Ron Reimann, a farmer near Pasco (and pumps water approximately 400 feet up from the reservoir behind Ice Harbor reservoir adds bluefish. See Irrigation from 4 Lower Snake River Reservoirs ), said his operation has taken major steps to cut down on water and power use in the last 30 years. But still his power costs are nearly three times what they were in 1975, and he's taken some former irrigation land out of production. He's trying to sell his farm, but it's difficult to find a buyer.

He blames the rising cost of electricity on efforts to save the salmon, and likened it to patching a roof with $20 bills.

"We cannot continue to leave families such as mine out of the equation," he said. "I am just as important as a fish, and I can damn well tell you that my 3-year-old granddaughter is more important."

Related Sites:
Endangered Species Compliance and Transparency Act by searching for Bill HR4857

Congressional Hearing Focuses on Power Rates, Fish Costs by Columbia Basin Bulletin, 7/14/6
Some Blame Power Rates on Salmon by Andrew Sirocchi, Tri-City Herald, 7/8/6
Hearing Covers Debate on Detailing Fish Costs by Jim Camden, Spokesman Review, 7/8/6
Power Users, Salmon Advocates Square Off Again in Hearing by Shannon Dininny, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 7/5/6
Dam Debate Heads to Pascoby Jim Camden, Spokesman Review, 7/5/6

Jim Camden, staff writer
Hearing Covers Debate on Detailing Fish Costs
Spokesman Review, July 8, 2006

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation