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Commentaries and editorials

Left in the Dark on Salmon

by Editorial Board
The Oregonian, June 24, 2007

The people of the Northwest need to see and understand
every tough choice pitting fish against Bonneville power

The lights never even blinked that chilly morning of April 3, when the Bonneville Power Administration miscalculated its electricity needs and took its mistakes out on threatened Columbia River salmon.

If an anonymous caller had not left a message for a federal judge overseeing a landmark salmon case, the people of the Northwest might never have known of the stark choice -- risk power outages, or override salmon protections -- faced by BPA managers that morning.

Without that call, the region would have remained in the dark, yet again, about the cold calculations and tough trade-offs between threatened salmon and the hydro system that powers the Northwest economy.

The secrecy surrounding the BPA's difficult choice on April 3 is just as disturbing as the ultimate decision its managers made that morning to put its customers ahead of salmon -- an apparent violation of the federal Endangered Species Act.

No one should excuse Bonneville's miscalculations, which involved selling too much electricity to power companies, then being unable to buy enough back when temperatures dropped and demand surged. Even so, it's easy to understand how and why the agency's frantic managers, faced at 4 a.m. with a choice of triggering power outages or potentially exposing salmon smolts to spinning turbines for a few hours, made the decision they did.

But it shouldn't have taken an anonymous call to the chambers of U.S. District Judge James Redden, the judge overseeing Columbia salmon recovery, for either the judge or the public to learn of the BPA's actions.

It is true, as a BPA spokesman said, that what happened April 3 "was a rare, unplanned and unexpected event" due to a "series of unfortunate circumstances." But it's also true that in thousands of ways, each and every day, the Northwest, the BPA and electricity users make decisions that are trade-offs between power and salmon.

People in the Northwest love salmon, and they love cheap electricity. But most of them don't understand how hard it is, and how much it costs, to have both. Most people don't know that an estimated 61 percent of young salmon survive the passage of Columbia and Snake river dams. Most don't know that the low-cost hydro system provides billions of dollars in benefits to the region every year.

Too, there's little awareness of the trade-offs of spilling water over the dams, which can help young salmon in their downriver migration, but requires the region to forego tens of millions of dollars worth of electricity. Many other issues aren't well understood, either: habitat loss, pouring hatchery fish into the rivers, allowing gill netting and extended fishing seasons, taking more water for irrigation, protecting sea lions and terns while they feast on endangered salmon.

All these trade-offs demand more public scrutiny and debate, not less. It is counterproductive to keep secret the painful and costly decisions that are made every day either in the name of power production or salmon protection.

The next time the analysts at BPA miscalculate and end up having to choose between blacking out homes or killing salmon, they ought to tell the people of the Northwest about it. That day.


. . .

(1) Any person who knowingly violates any provision of this Act, of any permit or certificate issued hereunder, or of any regulation issued in order to implement subsection (a)(1)(A), (B), (C), (D), (E), or (F); (a)(2)(A), (B), (C), or (D), (c), (d) (other than a regulation relating to recordkeeping, or filing of reports), (f), or (g) of section 9 of this Act shall, upon conviction, be fined not more than $50,000 or imprisoned for not more than one year, or both. Any person who knowingly violates any provision of any other regulation issued under this Act shall, upon conviction, be fined not more than $25,000 or imprisoned for not more than six months, or both.

Editorial Board
Left in the Dark on Salmon
The Oregonian, June 21, 2007

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