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Meeting Explores Power, Salmon Priorities

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, March 17, 2001

The federal agencies that run the Columbia River Basin dams want feedback
from tribes and states about their operations

Driven by the threat of a Northwest water shortage and a West Coast power crisis, the federal operators of Columbia River Basin dams called a rare emergency meeting Friday with state and tribal officials.

The question: Which salmon protection measures should they sacrifice to keep the lights on?

The three-hour meeting brought no decisions, but it revealed the region's sharp rift over how much power production should be forfeited to save salmon -- and more fundamentally, which salmon stocks should be given top priority.

To speed decision-making, the six federal agencies, led by the Bonneville Power Administration, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, have excluded states and tribes from deliberations over dam operations.

That's no longer good enough, said Donna Darm, acting regional director of the fisheries service.

"We realize that a lot of paranoia is being created," Darm told 45 federal, state and tribal representatives crowded into a meeting room at the Sheraton Portland Airport Hotel. "We invited the tribes and states here today because we recognize a need for a broader discussion."

Steve Wright, administrator of the BPA, said that if the forecast for the amount of water flowing from the Columbia River Basin continues to decline, his agency will have to devote the water solely to energy production if it is to meet regional power demands.

That probably won't happen, he said, and there should be room for some salmon-saving measures.

The forecast is for 57.6 million acre-feet, which would be the second-lowest flow since recordkeeping began in 1929, and just 4.24 million acre-feet above the record low of 53.36 million acre-feet in 1977.

As long as the outflow remains above 53 million feet, Wright said, BPA will have some extra water available. The water could be used in four ways, or some combination, he said: