Salmon or Power?
by Blaine Harden
PORTLAND -- As penance for their late beloved salmon, Pacific Northwest residents have taken about $1 billion out of their pockets in the past decade and flushed it down the Columbia and Snake rivers.
The money was lost because the region chose to limit electricity generation in the summer, forgoing lucrative power sales to sweaty Californians during the air-conditioning season. Water was diverted from fish-killing turbines and poured downstream so endangered salmon could migrate safely to the sea.
The summer spill began in the 1990s, when the Northwest was happily engulfed in high-tech enterprises, when people were moving to the region as much to recreate as to work, and when regional politicians were tripping over each other to vote greener than thou.
But that sweet season is gone. Unemployment is stubbornly high, electricity rates have soared, and endangered livelihoods seem to be trumping endangered fish. Federal managers of the nation's largest hydroelectric system have said that this year they want to halt, or at least limit, the summer spill. Having sniffed the economic winds, many politicians agree.
"When we are scratching and crawling for every penny we can get around here, I just don't think it is worth $80 million of lost power generation each summer to save very small numbers of fish," said Rep. Mike Schaufler, a Democrat who represents the outer suburbs of Portland in the Oregon Legislature.
The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), the agency that sells electricity from federal dams on the Columbia and Snake, says it would collect about $1 million a day in extra summertime revenue if not for the spill.
If the spill continues, the BPA will have to raise electricity rates, said Greg Delwiche, the vice president in charge of power supply for the agency.
Together with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (which operates most federal dams) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (which oversees the protection of endangered salmon), the BPA has declared that the spill is "excessively costly compared to the biological benefit."
Local utilities and large industrial power users are cheering the federal agencies on. They are also lobbying intensively in Washington and in state capitals.
Power users are upset about electricity rates — once the lowest in the nation — that have jumped nearly 50 percent since the West Coast electricity crisis of 2001.
Four of five homes in the Northwest receive power from dams — more than anywhere else in the United States.
At an Oregon legislative hearing last week, the BPA trotted out computer projections showing that the spill this summer will cost $77 million while ensuring the return of only about 20 adult salmon listed under federal law as endangered. That's $3.85 million per fish.
Schaufler studied the per-fish cost of the spill and appeared flabbergasted. "Am I reading this correctly?" he asked.
The answer to that incredulous question is a resounding "No," according to fish scientists, environmental groups and Native American tribes with fishing rights on the rivers.
They say the BPA is misusing a computer model to come up with self-serving cost estimates that grossly underestimate the fish-saving importance of spilling water and make it appear to be a ludicrous waste of money.
"This region is being blackmailed by the BPA, and we are being bullied by the utilities," said Paul Lumley, a manager at the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which speaks for the tribes.
His group's computer projections show that cutting the summer spill could result in the loss of 50,000 returning salmon.
Tribes are bitter about the last time the BPA canceled the summer spill in the name of saving money for electricity users. That was in 2001, during a season of severe drought and soaring power prices. The BPA told the tribes then that it would use some of the electricity revenue to protect salmon. The tribes say they are still waiting to see the money.
Many fish scientists, too, are annoyed by the BPA's proposal.
"Scientists are all clear on the fact that spill is crucial," said Ed Bowles, chief of the fish division of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "To characterize this issue as dueling science is a stretch."
Spilling water over dams is only one part of what the National Marine Fisheries Service has described as the most expensive and complicated federal effort to restore an ecosystem in U.S. history.
The total cost so far is more than $2 billion and running at about $700 million a year. A major portion of that money is spent to breed hundreds of millions of young salmon in federal hatcheries and then to barge them downstream around federal dams.
These and other programs were inspired by an alarming absence during the 1990s of wild adult salmon in the Columbia and Snake. The salmon's disappearance triggered the implementation of the Endangered Species Act and brought in federal judges to run the river system.
"There was a deep-seated belief that unless we intervened radically, many of these runs would go extinct," said Bob Lohn, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
What has changed since then — in addition to a fizzling economy and soaring electricity rates — is that salmon are back in the rivers in extraordinary numbers. In the past two years, primarily because of a cyclical improvement in ocean conditions for fish, salmon returns have reached highs not seen in four decades. Excellent returns are predicted for this year.
The salmon comeback appears to have eased popular concern about the future of the iconic fish.
It also has allowed the federal government to revisit the rationale for spending so much money and for spilling water instead of making electricity.
"This administration is looking for ways to get out of its responsibilities under the Endangered Species Act," said John Kober, wildlife-program manager at the National Wildlife Federation. "Rather than do things that create more wild fish, they take credit for ocean conditions."
The wild card in the river managers' move to scrap the summer spill is U.S. District Judge James Redden.
The Portland judge last year ordered the Bush administration to rethink its plans for saving the salmon. There was no certainty, the judge wrote, that the plan would succeed in time.
Federal river managers say they will announce their decision on the summer spill next month. Redden can accept it or insist on the status quo, which would steer water away from fish-killing turbines.
River's Power Aids California and Enriches the Northwest also by Blain Harden
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