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Locke Bots on Regional Fish, Dam Authority

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, January 8, 2000

The defection threatens Gov. John Kitzhaber's bold plan
for managing Northwest power and salmon

Washington Gov. Gary Locke has broken ranks with Northwest governors and decided not to participate in a much-heralded proposal by Gov. John Kitzhaber to create a powerful agency that would govern electricity distribution and salmon protection in the Columbia River Basin.

Locke's defection leaves Idaho and Montana supporting Kitzhaber's plan, lauded nationally as one region's way of retaining control over its river management despite a deep federal presence in the Northwest's hydropower system.

"Locke just reached the conclusion that he does not support Governor Kitzhaber's proposal," said Tom Karier, one of Locke's appointees to the Northwest Power Planning Council, on Friday. "It was distracting from other issues."

Among those issues, Karier said, is Locke's concern about electricity supplied by the Bonneville Power Administration. Washington now consumes 60 percent of BPA-supplied power, and redistributing it among four Northwest states could threaten Washington's position.

Locke's position leaves a key state on the sidelines, threatening to derail Kitzhaber's plan. Kitzhaber launched the idea of a new agency in 1999 as a device to find consensus among four states on tough, shared environmental problems such as fish conservation and management of hydroelectric dams.

"I'm extremely disappointed," said Sara Patton, executive director of the NW Energy Coalition, a Seattle conservation group. "We are really at risk here."

Kitzhaber, however, said he is not giving up.

"This doesn't diminish the importance of the issue," said Eric Bloch, one of Kitzhaber's two appointees to the Northwest Power Planning Council, the current regional body whose power is only advisory. "Kitzhaber believes that this is the right thing to do and will devote considerable energy to bringing it about."

As of Friday, Locke was expected to publicly announce his position next Wednesday at a Tacoma meeting of the power council, his aides said.

Kitzhaber's proposal comes as the federal government, faced with decades of failed efforts to rescue Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead trout, considers whether to recommend breaching four federal dams on the lower Snake River. That recommendation, originally due in December, has been postponed to May or later.

In a Seattle speech in September, Kitzhaber urged that the four Northwest states -- Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana -- create a new agency in the Columbia Basin that would balance electricity production at dams against the needs of salmon. Creation of that agency, which either would replace or augment the Northwest Power Planning Council, would require authorization by Congress.

Karier said Locke is against Kitzhaber's proposal because he thinks it diverts attention from, among other key issues, a Bonneville Power Administration rate case that will set electricity costs in the region and efforts to ensure the reliability of electric power in the Northwest.

Also, Karier said, Locke believes that wrestling with how the Columbia River should be governed could be regionally divisive.

Electricity users in Washington state support Locke. They worry that Kitzhaber's proposal would decrease the amount of electricity they would get from federal dams. Washington now gets the largest share of that electricity, which is distributed by the BPA.

Further, said Steve Johnson, executive director of the Washington Public Utility Districts, many Washington state power users don't want to bring national attention to Northwest electricity production.

The Northwest has much to lose, he said, if other areas of the country decide that it no longer should have first access to low-cost electricity generated by the region's federal dams.

"Going to Congress is crazy," Johnson said. "It will backfire."

Patton of the NW Energy Alliance called that calculation wrong.

"The thinking appears to be that the status quo is good for Washington (state), so why should we enter into negotiations where we might lose something?" she said. "That's shortsighted and dangerous. The status quo is not good for Washington; for one thing, we've got salmon going extinct."

Kitzhaber has scheduled a conference call with the governors of Washington, Idaho and Montana on Thursday, the day after Locke's Tacoma speech. Bloch said Kitzhaber will use that call to keep alive the proposal, which has the strong backing of Montana Gov. Marc Racicot. Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne also has endorsed the idea.

Kitzhaber retains hope that Locke will support Kitzhaber's proposal after other issues have been resolved, Bloch said.

"I don't think Locke pulling out now precludes him and the state of Washington from joining at a future time," Bloch said. "There are a lot of people who think this is very important."

Jonathan Brinckman
Locke Bots on Regional Fish, Dam Authority
The Oregonian, January 8, 2000

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