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Kitzhaber Proposes River Governance Body

Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin, September 24, 1999

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber last week proposed a Columbia River governance body that would oversee Northwest fish and wildlife recovery efforts, as well as the power and transmission functions of the Bonneville Power Administration.

The governance body would replace the Northwest Power Planning Council, established in 1981 by the Northwest Power Act. Kitzhaber's plan calls for the new body to include the four states, which is the make-up of the Council now, and to add Northwest tribes and federal agencies that also have legal authority in the region for both salmon recovery and for river operations.

Kitzhaber laid out his proposal at a Seattle City Club meeting Friday (Sept. 17) and asked Northwest governors to meet as soon as possible to put together the proposal to take to Congress by January. However, it remains unclear when the governors will meet and what each state's issues will be. A meeting of the Columbia River Basin Forum board may occur in October, but that meeting is running into scheduling difficulties.

Washington Gov. Gary Locke, Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, who was in Taiwan on a trade mission, and Montana Gov. Marc Racicot could not attend the City Club meeting. Neither Locke nor Kempthorne have had a chance to review Kitzhaber's proposal.

"Proposals of this magnitude -- on both fish and power -- will be controversial," Kitzhaber said in his speech. "Both Gov. Locke and Gov. Kempthorne of Idaho -- who have been active participants in these discussions -- have raised legitimate questions about the new Columbia Basin governance proposal that Gov. Racicot and I have developed."

Kitzhaber said the region needs to act now because it is at grave risk of losing two of its most prized assets: the "health of our shared ecosystem" and "the reliable, low-cost supply of power produced for the Northwest by the federal dams on the Columbia River." One is tied closely to the other and they must both be addressed to save the other, he said.

As for salmon recovery, Kitzhaber said the record is disappointing: $3 billion spent in 16 years, an effort that now employs 2,000 people.

"Yet, today, we find 11 populations of Columbia Basin salmon, steelhead and bull trout listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act," he said. "For some of these species, it is too late. For others, their depressed numbers point to a very uncertain future."

The reason, he said, is a lack of agreement on objectives, on science, on a plan and on who is accountable. He likened the Columbia River to the Balkans, "controlled by two nations, four states and 13 sovereign tribes," not to mention seven federal agencies with different missions, "no requirement for coordinated action and no way to resolve conflicts between themselves."

On the power side, Kitzhaber said half the region's low-cost power comes from the federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers and, with time, debt on that system will be paid down, making such power even more attractive. Unfortunately, it will also look good to those outside the region who will want BPA to sell its power at market rates at an estimated half a billion dollar cost to Northwest ratepayers. Some will suggest selling the system to pay off the federal debt on those assets sooner.

"The only way we are going to fend off those who want to sell the dams or force the BPA to sell power at market rates is to build a regional consensus," Kitzhaber said. He also called for spreading BPA's low-cost power over more of the region. He said that 60 percent of consumers in the region do not receive benefits from the Columbia River system because they are served by investor-owned utilities that do not have preference for that power.

About 75 percent of Oregon electric customers receive power from these private utilities, while much of Washington gets BPA power because more customers in that state are served by public power companies. Kitzhaber's proposal would ask that a more equal share of BPA power be spread across all states so everyone would have a stake in how BPA is governed.

But, now, Kitzhaber said, "access to low-cost federal power pits state against state, customer against customer, and utility against utility.

"If the Northwest does not propose a regional solution for fish and power, these issues will be decided for us," Kitzhaber said. "They will be decided by a Congress that is more interested in the value of our power than in the health of our environment."

He said the region needs to take two important steps: Establish a new regional governance structure with "the proper mission, representation and authority" and "present a regional consensus on how to recast the BPA in light of a competitive power market."

He set aside the idea that either the Northwest Power Planning Council or the Columbia River Basin Forum could fulfill his vision. The Council consists only of representatives from the four states, nor can it "compel coordinated action by federal agencies," Kitzhaber said.

"For that reason, the Power Planning Council -- as it is currently structured -- will never be the body that can forge and execute a regional agreement on what is to be done on the Columbia," Kitzhaber said.

Even the Columbia River Basin Forum, which does include membership of states, tribes and federal agencies, does not fit the bill because it, "like the Power Council, lacks the authority to actually implement a plan," he said.

Kitzhaber concluded his speech by proposing:

Is Kitzhaber's proposal reasonable, or even possible? Reactions are mixed.

Gov. Kempthorne will be in Taiwan and China until early Oct., so was not available to comment on Kitzhaber's proposal. However, his office said he and Kitzhaber touched base only the day before the speech.

"I know the Governor and Gov. Kitzhaber had spoken briefly about the proposal. But I don't believe he has had input into the plan," said Brian Whitlock, spokesman for the Idaho Governor's office. "It was more of a courtesy call before the speech."

He said Kempthorne will wait to return from his trade mission to look more closely at the proposal.

"Gov. Kitzhaber is further down the road on this issue than is Washington," said Keith Love, communications director for Gov. Locke. "But we're not that far apart."

He said Kitzhaber called before the speech, so "Gov. Locke knew what was coming. Gov. Kitzhaber raised some interesting points." Love said Gov. Locke agrees that BPA needs to be strengthened and that broadening BPA's stakeholders would be one way to do that. He said Locke, however, has not taken a formal stance on whether investor-owned utility customers should receive more BPA preference power.

Love said he believes the governors will meet in October at a Columbia River Basin Forum meeting that is yet to be scheduled.

The Council supports the idea of a regional entity with broader representation and more authority, but does not clearly say whether it would like to be recast into that entity.

In a prepared statement, Todd Maddock, chairman of the Council and representing Idaho, said the Council "heartily support[s] strengthening that regional voice with greater decision-making authority...We agree with the governors that a regional entity with greater authority and responsibility than the Council now enjoys has the best chance of developing and implementing a long-term plan to recover fish and wildlife...and preserve the benefits of the low-cost Columbia River power system for the people of the Northwest."

BPA said Kitzhaber's proposal was no surprise. The proposal -- at least the part about BPA -- is similar to one that came up in a regional review of Bonneville in 1996, and is something the agency continues to be aware of.

"Since she became administrator, Judi Johansen, has been saying that BPA would have to prepare for the day when the system would be so attractive to those outside that they'd want to rake off the benefits for the federal coffers," said Ed Mosey, BPA spokesman.

"We anticipated the four governors would take up the question of how to restructure the federal power system and take over control of management," he said, but it will take time. "It's our administrator's view that getting the legislation passed in 2000 would be miraculous."

"We think some change is inevitable, but it took five years to pass the power act," Mosey said. "That pales in comparison to Kitzhaber's proposal."

He said BPA has no opinion on how to restructure, that it is their job in this process to advise on economic and legal issues. He did say that BPA agrees with U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, who said privatization of BPA would be unacceptable.

Link information:
Bonneville Power Administration:
Montana Governor's Office:
Idaho Governor's Office:
Washington Governor's Office:
Oregon Governor's Office:
Columbia River Basin Forum:

Mike O'Bryant
Kitzhaber Proposes River Governance Body
Columbia Basin Bulletin, September 24, 1999

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