In an effort to save Northwest residents a few dollars on their electricity bills this year, the Bonneville Power Administration may have cost us all millions of dollars more for future salmon recovery.
Such a strategy is clearly no bargain. It may be illegal, too, as a lawsuit filed this week against BPA hopes to prove.
The suit, brought by several environmental and fishing groups, alleges that the federal power distribution agency violated the law when it held back millions of gallons of water behind Columbia River dams last summer -- water that was essential to speed migrating salmon downstream to the Pacific Ocean.
In so doing, the lawsuit says, BPA failed in its legal responsibility to provide "equitable treatment" to fish as well as to power generation and other river uses.
Bonneville justified the lower spill rates -- a mere 10 percent of the minimum required by the National Marine Fisheries Service to support migratory fish runs -- as a necessary response to a power emergency, a drought that drastically reduced the amount of water available in the Columbia system. Opponents of the BPA's action point out, however, that there was no actual emergency, that plenty of nonhydro supplemental power was available to compensate for whatever might be lost to fish passage.
But using the expensive nonhydro power would have meant higher energy prices. BPA officials say it might even have threatened the agency's financial footing.
Yet by its very actions, BPA may have done the same thing. The restrictions on spill may have brought about one of the worst years on record for migratory fish survival. By one estimate, just one in 25 young steelhead successfully navigated the stretch above Bonneville Dam, compared to 10 times that many last year.
Juvenile fish who don't make it to the sea cannot return years later as adult fish to spawn -- a devastating domino effect that stretches across generations. With one short-sighted decision, BPA may have undone years of salmon recovery efforts that have already cost us billions of dollars.
The fish themselves are valuable. In addition to being a crucial part of our region's history and character, the salmon makes a tangible contribution to our economy through recreation and tourism. One study pegged the financial benefit of healthy salmon runs to the state of Idaho alone at $170 million and 5,000 jobs.
By and large, Northwesterners understand the value of salmon and are prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to preserve them. A 1999 study, funded in part by the Washington Department of Ecology, concluded that state residents would be willing to pay $120 to $325 a year per household if it meant a 50 percent increase in fish population.
BPA apparently hasn't got that message. Perhaps the lawsuit filed this week will drive it home. Our wild salmon have been pushed to the edge of extinction mainly by human activity. Modifying or curtailing that activity is essential if the salmon are to survive. It's the fiscally prudent thing to do.
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