Gavel Spat Distracts from Threat to Northwest Powerby Kate Riley, Times editorial columnist
Seattle Times, August 12, 2002
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber has been taking some controversial stands in the waning months of his administration. And while his veto last week of his Legislature's budget has raised hackles across his state, the governor is putting his other foot down with implications for power and fish that reach all the way to Montana.
Kitzhaber has threatened to pull his state's two representatives off the four-state Northwest Power Planning Council if members did not agree to rotate the council's chairmanship among the states. Of 21 annual elections, an Oregon member has been chair only three times, while Washington has had the seat eight times; Montana, six; and Idaho, four.
Now is not the time for the Northwest states to have a rift over any aspect of its power system, especially considering potential challenges by other regions and even the federal government to the Northwest's corner on its lower-cost hydropower produced by Columbia-Snake river dams. Kitzhaber should not follow through, but his conniption should be a wake-up call to other governors that its time to more tightly close ranks on power issues.
Perhaps the governors should revisit the original vision of the council and consider whether it needs a recommitment to its earlier, more regional approach — a tone set by its first chairman, former Washington Gov. Dan Evans — or an expansion of its authority and membership. Another Kitzhaber proposal, which the council is expected to take up at its meeting this week in Helena, is to consider formalizing the council's relationship with 13 affected tribes.
The power council was established by the Northwest Power Act of 1980 to set policy ensuring adequate power supplies and mitigating the damage to fish and wildlife done by the dams — missions often at odds. That conflict creates friction between the states with their different roles and needs.
The tension is perhaps most apparent between the states that share the Columbia River as their border. Kitzhaber says dam breaching should still be under consideration; Washington Gov. Gary Locke has all but ruled it out.
Kitzhaber has been too busy with his state's budget strife and raging wildfires to decide whether to follow through on his threat, a spokeswoman said. But last week he proposed a replacement for the Oregon council representative he recently fired.
Kitzhaber's concerns about Oregon's role being minimized likely won't go away even with a new governor. In 1990, then-Gov. Neil Goldschmidt ordered his members not to attend meetings briefly for the same reason.
One of Oregon's former council representatives, Angus Duncan, say the continuous snubbing of Oregon members reflects something that goes much deeper — a shift from the original vision of a cooperative body with representation from four states to a body with four states competing for their own interests. The shift occurred shortly after the first batch of Snake River salmon stocks were declared endangered, Duncan said.
"When we started talking about divvying up the water (to save salmon) — that's when people got much less regional and much more provincial," Duncan says.
Former Washington member Mike Kreidler, now Washington's insurance commissioner, also noticed a shift away from independence when he served from 1995-98. "I went on the council with a feeling that I had a considerable amount of independence. But it became gradually apparent the focus was shifting more toward the governor," he said.
In the early 1990s, the council decided to experiment with drawing down reservoirs behind dams to see how fish were affected — an action that roused fear in Southeastern Washington, where the economy relies heavily on the dams for irrigation water and because they make the Snake River navigable to barges.
The latest Fish and Wildlife Plan concedes dam-breaching is unlikely during its five-year life — a provision third-year Chairman Larry Cassidy, a Washington representative, is proud to say received a unanimous vote.
That acknowledgement has focused the council more on other salmon recovery options, including habitat restoration and enhancement and hatchery improvement. The council's fish and wildlife programs, funded and implemented by the Bonneville Power Administration, average about $186 million annually.
Oregon must remain part of the council, given the potential threats to the benefits of lower-cost power that has helped build Northwest economies. Given BPA's ongoing financial troubles, touched off by the 2000-01 energy crisis, talk that the agency should be privatized or sold off might revive. Also, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last week proposed to standardize power-transmission systems, something many utility officials fear could ultimately raid Northwest power.
Given these threats, fighting over who gets the power council gavel is a little like playing with a live wire. The disagreement could burn the whole house down.
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