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Should California's Need for Electricity Cost Northwest Salmon?

by Editorial Board
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - August 4, 2000

California's hunger for electricity spells more trouble for the Columbia/Snake River salmon.

That became apparent this week when California -- trying to cope with high heat, a growing population increasingly wired to the Internet and a volatile deregulated electricity market -- edged to the abyss of an unprecedented "stage three" power shortage. At "stage three," rolling blackouts are imposed on electrical customers.

It's quite likely there will be more power shortages in California, where the system is described as being on the "ragged edge" of failure. Shortages, possibly even rolling blackouts, may even occur in the Northwest.

No new power generating plants have been built either here or in California to accommodate increased demand. Nor are any real conservation efforts under way.

The Bonneville Power Administration reservoirs are at normal or just under normal capacity but electrical demand is above average. This is not a happy conjunction of events.

If and when rolling blackouts hit California, the BPA proposes to seize the moment even though BPA is not legally obligated to sell power to California. As BPA administrator Judi Johansen said Tuesday, "This emergency is very real. . . . The elderly, sick and infants are particularly vulnerable in extreme temperatures when there are power failures."

During the demand of a stage-three crisis, BPA's power can command the highest prices, within a cap set by the federal government.

But to generate the power needed then in California, BPA must sacrifice salmon. Normally the National Marine Fisheries Service requires a certain amount of water be spilled over the dams to move juvenile fish to sea without running them through the gantlet of fish-killing turbines.

But during an emergency, BPA is allowed to use the water allocated for fish to generate electricity.

So instead of spilling water over the dams to scoot the smolts along, the water is diverted into the turbines.

Had a stage three materialized as feared Tuesday, it would have killed 2 percent more than the usual number of the fall Chinook smolts journeying downriver.

Most of that run of smolts make the trip past the dams in barges, avoiding turbines altogether. But the point remains: This region is spending billions trying to save these fish.

Because we can expect more electricity shortages, it's legitimate to ask what qualifies as a genuine -- as in unavoidable despite responsible management -- power emergency in California.

And it's legitimate to ask why dearly bought Northwest salmon should perish to fuel California's wretched excess if that state fails to make prudent provision for its own electricity demands.

Editorial Board
Should California's Need for Electricity Cost Northwest Salmon?
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 4, 2000

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