Oregon Joins Lawsuit
by Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
Oregon has joined American Indian tribes in a lawsuit accusing the Bonneville Power Administration of failing to put salmon on equal footing with power generation, a sharp departure from other Northwest states.
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber signed off on the decision last month.
That makes Oregon the only state to join the tribes in its lawsuit against Bonneville, the latest example of a growing rift between Oregon and the three other states in the Columbia Basin.
Representatives of conservation groups said they weren't surprised by Oregon joining with the Umatilla, Nez Perce and Warm Springs tribes, given the fact that Kitzhaber has argued in the past that the BPA should do more for salmon. "It's an issue that dramatically affects the economy of Oregon, particularly the fishery-dependent economy on the lower river," said Glen Spain, Northwest regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "Much of the lower-river economy has been sacrificed unnecessarily to deal with a power crisis that evaporated almost immediately."
Don't count on Washington Gov. Gary Locke joining Kitzhaber, a fellow Democrat.
Locke is looking out for Washington's own economic interests in the management of the Columbia River, and they don't line up exactly with Kitzhaber's.
While Kitzhaber has supported the idea of removing four federal dams on the lower Snake River to restore 140 miles of free-flowing salmon habitat, Locke has opposed it. Both states have commercial fishing industries, but Washington has a much bigger stake in the electricity generated by federal dams in the Columbia Basin. The Evergreen State receives almost 60 percent of the electricity from the federal hydropower system, while Oregon utilities and industrial customers receive about 30 percent.
"We don't support this lawsuit," Locke spokeswoman Krristine Marree said.
Biologists generally believe spilling juvenile salmon away from dam turbines is the safest way to get them past dams, but doing so diverts water that otherwise would be used to spin hydroelectric turbines.
Bonneville spokesman Ed Mosey said Oregon's entry into the legal case doesn't change the BPA's contention that it did all it could for salmon under the harsh conditions of a drought. Mosey said the BPA spilled as much as it could for fish, given wholesale electricity rates that had rocketed to unprecedented heights due to a power shortage in California.
"We think we can prove we gave the fish at least equitable treatment, given the severity of the drought," he said.
Worried about drowning in red ink if it had to purchase power on the open market, the BPA decided early in the year to save as much water as it could to drive hydroelectric turbines in the summer.
But, by mid-summer, the energy crisis evaporated as quickly as it came.
BPA officials have said when they made decisions about holding water in the spring they couldn't anticipate the rates falling as quickly as they did in the fall.
Ultimately, the agency spilled only about 10 percent of the minimum target established by the National Marine Fisheries Service in December 2000. Partly as a result, the survival rate for fish migrating past the dams was about 20 percent or less for juvenile steelhead and 20 percent to 60 percent for chinook, far below historical averages, according to data compiled by the federal Fish Passage Center.
Kitzhaber criticized BPA's handling of the drought as far back as last April.
"I do not believe that your plans utilize all the tools at our disposal to continue our efforts to restore the health of the salmon and steelhead populations of the Columbia Basin," he told BPA Administrator Steve Wright at the time.
The two-term Oregon governor argued BPA should have more aggressively sought federal funds for fish recovery projects and buybacks of irrigation water; purchased more power on the wholesale electricity market; and deferred its annual $ 600 million dam construction debt payment to the U.S. Treasury.
Wright contends that skipping a payment would have given ammunition to lawmakers from the Northeast and Midwest who have lobbied to do away with the Northwest preference for dirt-cheap hydropower.
A tribal representative said the tribes were happy with Kitzhaber's decision to join the lawsuit.
"We think it's great," said Debra Croswell, spokeswoman for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. "We're glad that we're not going it alone anymore on this one. We're pleased to see one of our co-managers stepping up to the plate and helping us in our effort to ensure accountability of the federal agencies."
The Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes filed the lawsuit in November against the BPA, and they have since been joined by the Warm Springs tribe along with Oregon.
The tribes, and now Oregon, contend the BPA violated the Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Act of 1980. The act requires Bonneville to give fish and wildlife "equitable treatment" with energy, navigation and irrigation in managing the Columbia River hydrosystem. Conservation groups, led by the Sierra Club and Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Association, have sued Bonneville on the same grounds.
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs