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Crunch Time: It's Fish or Outages

by Les Blumenthal, Scripps-McClatchy Western Service
Commentary, Spokesman Review, February 3, 2001

Come what may, having enough energy to meet demand in the Northwest is going to cost us, big time.
Les Blumenthal says salmon are almost certain to be an item on our bill.

WASHINGTON -- As the region desperately struggles to ease the sharp run-up in electric rates and save the Bonneville Power Administration from a possible financial meltdown, salmon runs on the Columbia and Snake rivers may be the ultimate sacrifice.

No one much wants to talk about it.

At a recent hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, testimony centered on price caps, cost-based rates, deregulation, re-regulation, stage 3 emergency alerts, long-term contracts, short-term fixes, federal limits on NOX emissions and an electricity market where energy is wheeled and dealed like a commodity on the Chicago Board of Trade.

Judi Johansen, the former BPA administrator who now works for PacificCorp, was one of the few to mention salmon, and then only to say the region was sacrificing 1,000 megawatts of power annually by releasing water to increase flows and aid migrating juveniles on the Columbia and Snake.

"It's something we need to take a look at," Johansen said.

Only a few months ago, the debate over salmon focused on whether to breach four dams on the lower Snake River. The dams produce about 5 percent of the region's power. Before the current crisis, some thought that energy might be expendable. Not now. The issue now hinges on flows.

When Bonneville officials were on Capitol Hill several weeks ago and in the best bureaucratic doublespeak, they indicated the federal power marketing administration would have to "operate outside the biological opinion" as a result of the West Coast's current energy crunch.

What they were really saying is they were prepared to sacrifice, at least temporarily, the salmon runs on the Columbia and Snake. Bonneville was spending $50 million a week to buy power on the open market and had drained better than a fourth of its cash reserves to keep the lights on in the region and in California.

The biological opinion, which spells out in detail how the river system will be operated to save fish, sets specific flow targets. The only exception is when the region is critically short of the water needed to produce electricity.

Bonneville officials said they would be running the Columbia River hydropower system more aggressively so they wouldn't have to keep buying expensive spot power on the open market. In order to do that, they have to release more water from behind Grand Coulee Dam and such other upriver storage reservoirs as Dworshak Dam in Idaho and Libby Dam in Montana.

The tradeoff, which BPA officials readily acknowledge, is that there may not be enough water later this year to refill the reservoirs and provide the river flows required under the biological opinion to aid spring and summer fish migrations.

BPA's decision also may have finally crystallized the question at the heart of the salmon debate: How much are the region's electric ratepayers prepared to spend to save the runs? When the answer was another $2 or $3 per month on their monthly power bills, most people weren't too concerned.

But now, with the region's utilities slapping on surcharges, raising rates and with Bonneville proposing to raise its rates by more than 180 percent over the next two years, no one is quite sure when sticker shock will set in.

"We tried to buy our way out and paid extremely high prices to secure power supplies," BPA administrator Steve Wright said of his decision to increase flows. "But we found the megawatts dwindling and prices skyrocketing."

Wright sought to emphasize that the decision to increase flows had nothing to do with California and said the additional power was needed in the Northwest.

But given a West Coast energy grid that stretches from British Columbia to Arizona, skeptics were quick to snipe that the Northwest was, once again, bailing out California, this time because of an executive order issued by the secretary of energy requiring the Northwest to ship as much power south as possible.

"It's not going to be a good year for migrating salmon," said Rob Lothrop of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "Mother Nature could still bail us out, but we are not optimistic. We could be headed for another El Nino."

Runoff this year in the Columbia River Basin is predicted to be 68 percent of normal and the level of Lake Roosevelt behind Grand Coulee Dam is the lowest in 25 years. Lake Roosevelt and other huge reservoirs are being drained at the rate of more than one foot per day.

Increased flows during the spring and summer on the Columbia have long been considered one of the keys to rebuilding the salmon runs. This spring, more than 300,000 chinook, the most since the 1930s, are expected to return to the river. These fish migrated downstream during earlier high-water years.

But as is the way with the salmon issue, the fish returning this spring also experienced favorable ocean conditions as the last El Nino eased.

Columbia and Snake river salmon may represent the first major environmental crisis the Bush administration confronts and there is a growing concern the White House may convene a so-called God squad to resolve the controversy. A Cabinet-level God squad could decide whether to sacrifice the runs to save the region's economy. It would be chaired by Gale Norton, the new secretary of interior.

Les Blumenthal, is a Washington, D.C., reporter for Scripps-McClatchy Western Service
Crunch Time: It's Fish or Outages
Spokesman Review, February 3, 2001

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