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Power Crisis Heats Up Fish Fight

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, February 5, 2001

Advocates say the BPA decision to draw down reservoirs
during the electricity shortage shows a lack of commitment to salmon

Bonneville Power Administration's decision last month to give up water saved for salmon exposes a thorny new reality: In a power crisis, all deals to protect fish are off.

The decision poses a question nobody wants to confront: What price salmon?

BPA officials said they had no choice.

The agency faced buying extra power at stratospheric prices or stepping up power production at federal dams by draining reservoirs of water saved to boost spring river flows and aid salmon. They chose the latter, they said, to avert an agency fiscal crisis.

"It's not something we'd do if we didn't have to," said Dulcy Mahar, a spokeswoman for BPA. "We were feeling that our economic viability was in jeopardy."

Salmon advocates are alarmed. They say the decision to release water shows that, at crunch time, salmon will be sacrificed for power and that federal promises to help the beleaguered fish cannot be counted upon.

With Western power markets tightening, they say, that's bad news for salmon.

"The great lie has been revealed," said Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. "It's difficult for me to express my disgust."

When the federal government decided in December not to breach four dams on the lower Snake River for salmon, it promised alternative measures, including large releases of water in the spring and summer to help young salmon reach the ocean.

The federal plan released that month says that water stored behind federal dams -- such as Grand Coulee in Eastern Washington and Dworshak in Idaho -- should be held until spring and summer to carry millions of young chinook, steelhead, sockeye and coho to the Pacific Ocean. The water also helps cool the Snake and Columbia rivers, important because salmon become weak and even die when water temperatures top 70 degrees.

Those releases are more important to salmon than ever because this year is near drought, the fourth-driest in 72 years of record keeping in the Columbia Basin. Low snowpacks mean that, unless rains this spring are unexpectedly heavy, rivers this spring and summer will be warm and stagnant.

"This is shaping up to be a low-flow year," said Ed Bowles, fish division director for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "Having some water in the bucket in Dworshak and other places is important."

But on Jan. 18, as runoff forecasts were getting grimmer, BPA declared a power emergency and announced it was releasing water from that bucket. By declaring the emergency, it freed itself of tough regulation under the Endangered Species Act, which lends protection to 12 runs of Columbia Basin salmon.

Electricity prices on spot markets had spiked to $750 a megawatt hour, more than 30 times the $22.50 BPA gets for each megawatt hour it is obligated to sell its customers. The difference between what BPA paid for wholesale power and the price at which it sold the power cost the agency $50 million in the four days before Jan. 18.

Judi Johansen, BPA's former administrator who left to become an executive vice president at PacifiCorp, the Portland-based utility, said: "BPA is in the very unfortunate position of having to make these tradeoffs. I'm sure they would like the reality of affording everything, but the luxury is not there."

Making matters more menacing for BPA is its debt. Bonneville each year must make payments to the federal treasury to cover the cost of building the federal dams. The estimated bill Sept. 30 is $828 million: $172 million in principal and the remaining $656 million in interest.

The high cost of buying power, BPA officials said, was burning money the agency was holding for that payment.

"BPA has clearly drawn a line in the sand and said the fish aren't worth the price they are paying for power," said Mark Glyde of the NW Energy Coalition in Seattle.

Glyde and others say that BPA should keep water for salmon and consider missing its payment deadline.

"Normally we'd say that missing a treasury payment is something BPA should avoid at all costs," Glyde said. "Given the extreme circumstances that have created this crisis, we think BPA can make a good case for at least delaying the payment."

BPA officials say that's a bad idea. Missing a treasury payment, they say, would strengthen the case of people who consider it unfair that the Northwest residents and businesses get BPA's low-cost power. The Northeast-Midwest Institute of Washington, D.C., for example, says BPA customers get an unfair federal subsidy.

"If we don't make our treasury payments, we lend momentum to that movement," said Mahar of the BPA. "It would be stupid if we gave fuel to interests that would like to get their hands on Northwest assets."

That leads to perhaps the greatest irony of all in solving the salmon riddle: If Bonneville fails, agency officials say, so does the source of more than $250 million a year spent to help salmon.

"There are people who think the risk to fish would be greater if Bonneville didn't exist," Mahar said.

BPA's decision in January to release water saved for salmon meant that the agency was able to boost its generating power by 1,000 megawatts and stem its financial hemorrhage.

But water levels in storage dams are now low and getting lower.

Lake Roosevelt, the enormous reservoir behind Grand Coulee Dam, was 40 feet below its target elevation Friday. And about 6,000 cubic feet per second were being released at Dworshak Dam, nearly five-times the release called for in the federal salmon plan.

"Even before they started releasing the water, we knew it was going to be a bad year for fish," said Steve Pettit, a biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. "It's hard for me to accept that the federal government has chosen to exacerbate the situation."

Biologists with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, a Portland organization that represents four tribes with treaty rights to salmon, say the Columbia and Snake rivers will likely be lethal to salmon this spring and summer. They say the federal government may have violated a treaty obligation to help salmon.

"The fact that the federal government is abrogating its salmon promises is very, very troubling," said Rob Smith, an attorney with the Nez Perce Tribe in Idaho. "It calls the federal government's commitment to salmon restoration into question."

Conservationists agree. They say the power crisis reveals the low priority of salmon.

"We think salmon recovery was feeble as it was," said Hamilton of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. "Now they have reneged on even those feeble measures."

Jonathan Brinckman
Power Crisis Heats Up Fish Fight
The Oregonian, February 5, 2001

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