Kitzhaber Tries to Sell Governors
Steve Suo, The Oregonian, September 18, 1999
A four-state agency would be established to take over decisions
on the economic issues affecting the Columbia River
Gov. John Kitzhaber on Friday pitched a controversial new plan for restoring endangered salmon and protecting the Northwest's cheap electric rates: the creation of a powerful, four-state Columbia River authority that someday could buy the Bonneville Power Administration from the federal government.
The authority would include federal and tribal officials and have control over tough environmental and economic choices, such as whether to remove or draw down dams that make it hard for fish to move along rivers.
And it would help stave off congressional efforts to make Bonneville earn a profit for the federal treasury by increasing electrical rates, a move that could cost the region $500 million a year.
"If the Northwest does not propose a regional solution for fish and power, these issues will be decided for us," Kitzhaber told civic leaders in Seattle. "They will be decided by a Congress that is more interested in the value of our power than in the health of our environment."
While the idea of regional cooperation is nothing new, the Democratic governor offered a much stronger version that supporters say has a better chance of actually producing results.
It comes at a time when federal regulators are increasingly interested in forcing action by Northwest states. The National Marine Fisheries Service has listed 11 populations of Columbia Basin salmon, steelhead trout and bull trout as endangered or threatened.
And critics say that the Northwest Power Planning Council, the 20-year-old regional body charged with balancing power and fish needs, lacks the federal authority and key tribal representation to work effectively and decisively. They say the council has little to show for its $3 billion restoration effort.
Some environmentalists and consumer advocates praised the governor for showing the sense of urgency behind regional cooperation.
Bob Jenks, a lobbyist for Oregon's Citizens' Utility Board, said it could lead to lower rates for customers who currently have no access to cheap hydroelectric power at Bonneville dams. Spreading Bonneville's benefits, in turn, could strengthen political support regionally for the power agency.
Further, Bonneville's hydropower is expected to get cheaper in coming decades as the debts it owes on failed nuclear power plants are paid down.
Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, a Republican who worked closely with Kitzhaber to develop the plan, said he supports a regional planning authority -- and more.
"I don't think it's beyond possibility," Racicot said. "What would be wrong if the Pacific Northwest owned BPA?"
Washington presents a challenge. But even the place Kitzhaber chose to deliver his remarks -- the City Club of Seattle -- highlighted the first likely stumbling block to regional cooperation. Whereas Oregon receives most of its power from private utilities, Washington is heavily dependent on Bonneville for power. A new system might redistribute the BPA power more widely and reduce Washington's share, some industrial users say.
Washington Gov. Gary Locke, who did not attend the speech but spoke with Kitzhaber about it last week, reacted tepidly.
"In Kitzhaber's mind, this is on the front burner," said Keith Love, Locke's spokesman.
"It's certainly of interest to Gov. Locke, but he may disagree with the governor on where it ranks right now."
Meanwhile, the symbolism of Kitzhaber's trip north was not lost on environmentalists, who said Locke needs some prodding.
"It's definitely a challenge to Gov. Locke, but I think its a legitimate challenge," said Tim Stearns, policy director for Save Our Wild Salmon in Seattle. "Gov. Locke has not demonstrated that they have a coherent Columbia policy on either energy or fish."
Industrial and agricultural users, in principle, said they liked the idea of a unified regional authority over power and fish restoration.
But creating the new authority would require an act of Congress. And that battle is highly unlikely to produce results, with the Northwest's congressional delegation small and short on seniority, said Bruce Lovelin, executive director of the Columbia River Alliance.
Further, Lovelin said, the results of debating who controls the Northwest's hydropower and how it is distributed could backfire.
"It's a risky game that I'm just not sure our members are willing to play," Lovelin said.
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