Power Users, Salmon Advocates
by Shannon Dininny, Associated Press
PASCO, Wash. -- The federal government must find a balance between rising electricity costs, which hurt schools, farmers and low-income residents, and spending for salmon recovery in the Columbia and Snake river basins, a panel of groups from Washington, Oregon and Idaho said Friday.
Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Wash., invited representatives of 11 groups and federal agencies to speak at the congressional field hearing of the U.S. House subcommittee on water and power. McMorris has proposed legislation that would require the Bonneville Power Administration to include in its monthly bills to utility customers a list of costs associated with complying with the Endangered Species Act.
The hearing was intended to seek a balance between providing reliable, affordable electricity for consumers and protecting endangered salmon with a balanced and reasonable approach, McMorris said.
"Often times, the Endangered Species Act is being used as a tool to drive up costs for our electricity consumers," she said. "No one disagrees with protecting truly endangered species, but the ESA has been misinterpreted and stretched to put species before people."
Ron Reimann, owner of T&R Farms in Pasco, said he has installed special pumps and pivots and uses computers to control and reduce his water use. Still, his power rates have increased 81 percent since 2001.
"The fact that we are still here is amazing to us, not to mention our bankers," he said. "Spilling water to flush fish downstream is senseless. I'm just as important as a fish."
Washington already has high unemployment insurance costs, high regulatory costs and high workers compensation benefits, said Gary Chandler, vice president of governmental affairs for the Association of Washington Business.
"Historically, our low power rates have made up for that. We used to have a real advantage over other states because of our low-cost hydropower. But that advantage is slipping away," he said.
The Bonneville Power Administration provides 40 percent of the region's power, with 90 percent of that coming from hydropower dams that have been blamed for declining salmon returns on the Columbia and Snake rivers. The dams provide the Northwest with some of the country's lowest electricity rates - Idaho and Washington rank among the top five states for low rates, while Montana and Oregon are tied for 12th.
In the past 20 years, Bonneville has spent $7.8 billion on fish and wildlife mitigation efforts, said Steven Wright, BPA administrator and chief executive officer. Those efforts include measures to improve salmon passage through the dams for both adult and juvenile salmon.
"We have achieved notable successes and urge more attention on the efforts for recovery. The results of the last few years are very encouraging," Wright said. At the same time, he said, "We have now picked the 'low hanging fruit' for hydrosystem operations impacts and we are reaching a point of diminishing returns for additional hydrosystem operations and improvements."
The federal government needs to ensure those costs achieve demonstrable results, said Terry Flores, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, a nonprofit coalition of river users that includes agricultural interests, utilities, industries and ports.
"We want to ensure that what is being spent is well spent. We are about accountability," she said. "If we are to truly solve the problem long term, we must ensure that our dollars are being invested in those measures that will provide real benefits."
But blaming salmon recovery efforts for the cost of heating homes is unfair, said Rebecca Miles, chairwoman of Idaho's Nez Perce tribe and a commissioner of the Portland, Ore.-based Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. Four Columbia River tribes - the Yakama, Warm Springs, Umatilla and Nez Perce - created the commission nearly three decades ago to help the tribes enforce fishing regulations and protect treaty fishing rights, habitat and ensure conservation.
Such statements overlook many factors that contribute to the cost of electricity, Miles said.
"I ask you to consider salmon recovery as an investment and not just a cost," she said. "Today, what we need for salmon, and what rural economies need in terms of energy costs is the same thing: certainty." In 2007, BPA expects to spend $338 million for fish and wildlife projects. The agency labels another $357 million as salmon recovery expense, though that money is in the form of revenue that could be earned if water were not spilled over the dams to aid fish.
By contrast, the agency will spend $847 million in 2007 in debt costs associated with building dams and nuclear plants, including plants planned but never completed as part of the former Washington Public Power Supply System.
Operating costs for dams and power plants for 2007 have been estimated at $479 million. After the hearing, Miles noted her disappointment about the list of invited speakers.
Of 11 invited speakers, seven supported efforts to reduce electricity rates or McMorris' bill to make Endangered Species Act costs transparent to consumers on their power bills. Just two speakers supported increasing efforts on behalf of endangered fish, while two government agencies took no position.
The list "doesn't seem to include conservationists and it doesn't seem to include recreationists," said Paula Del Giudice, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Western office in Seattle, who was not invited to speak. "We just want to see fish given equal consideration."
Endangered Species Compliance and Transparency Act by searching for Bill HR4857
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