Regional Overseers are Not Necessary
by Tom Karier and F.L. Cassidy Jr.
As the largest customer of the Bonneville Power Administration and the most populous state in the Columbia Basin, Washington has much at stake in the new Northwest governance debate.
Can the region own Bonneville? Should Bonneville power be reallocated throughout the Northwest? Do we need a new Northwest government to guide fish and wildlife recovery efforts in the Columbia Basin? These are some of the questions raised by Sam R. Sperry in the Sept. 12 Focus Section of the Post-Intelligencer and reiterated by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber in a speech in Seattle Sept. 17.
These are not easy questions because if you answer them wrong, Washington could lose its status as one of the lowest-cost electric power states in the nation. The wrong answer could also dilute Washington's voice in salmon recovery and energy issues in the Northwest.
Can the region own Bonneville?
It certainly can and it would make a lot of sense if it did. The region is steadily paying off the federal debt created in building the federal hydro projects. It makes sense that the region should own the assets after the debt is paid off. Regional ownership would also prevent any future threat by Congress to eliminate the cost-based rates that make Bonneville power such a valuable resource.
As a practical matter, regional ownership would require an act of Congress that in recent years has shown more interest in selling BPA to the highest bidder than to a regional entity. The Northwest must work very carefully to find a strategy that will accomplish regional ownership without inciting powerful forces from the Midwest and Northeast calling for an end to our low rates. It certainly doesn't help that the Northwest has no members on the U.S. House Commerce Committee.
But even before we explore such a strategy, we need to get our own house in order. That means we must complete the five-year contracts for federal power that Bonneville is currently negotiating. This has been a contentious process, sometimes characterized as a food fight.
Disgruntled parties have taken their demands for special treatment to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress and the administration, filed lawsuits, and attacked each other in the media. We must make a good faith effort to settle differences and complete the contracts before we begin a dialogue about regional ownership of Bonneville.
Should Bonneville power be reallocated in the Northwest?
The short answer is "no" if you come from Washington state, which currently purchases about 60 percent of Bonneville's Northwest power sales. The vast majority of this power is generated at low-cost hydropower dams, most of which are located in Washington state. This electric power is distributed by rules that give preference to public utilities and is put to good use by households, farmers, businesses and industry throughout our state.
If you are from other states in the Northwest -- Oregon, Idaho, Montana -- sharing the remaining 40 percent of the power, the answer might be different. But the most important fact is that all states in the Northwest enjoy low electric rates relative to the rest of the country and we gain more by preserving those rates than by fighting over a limited amount of power. Collective efforts by the states and our congressional delegations have effectively protected cost-based rates and those efforts must continue.
We have only to look at the current contracting process to realize that raising the specter of reallocating power is a divisive issue, not a unifying strategy. For every winner there is a loser. It doesn't help that so many Bonneville customers are convinced they deserve more federal power -- a practical impossibility given the finite amounts.
Do we need a new Northwest organization to guide fish and wildlife recovery efforts?
As Gov. Gary Locke's appointees to the Northwest Power Planning Council, we don't think so. The problem with fish and wildlife recovery as we see it is not for lack of organizations or lack of authority. If there was anything lacking in the past, it was a sense of urgency.
All that has changed now that we have 12 populations of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin listed as endangered or threatened. The region is energized to prevent the extinction of these Northwest icons and will accept nothing less than success.
Washington state joined Kitzhaber early this year in supporting the formation of the Columbia River Basin Forum. The forum promised to explore the benefits of broadening participation in recovery efforts to include representatives from states, tribes and the federal government.
In our view, the forum is a historic experiment in regional coordination. Can a diverse committeeof regional representatives unite behind an effective fish and wildlife recovery plan? Let's be patient and see what the answer is before we use the forum as a model for a more powerful regional entity to govern fish and wildlife.
It's hard for us to believe that creating yet another new regional government with authorities rivaling the federal and state governments will be the silver bullet to solve the salmon problem. Most of the specific proposals we have seen are not based on fair representation and actually dilute Washington's votes. Such a body is likely to create more problems and less coordination. What we need is better government, not more government and certainly not another layer of bureaucratic authority.
By better government we mean that performance standards, accountability and cost-effectiveness should guide our investments in fish and wildlife. We must ensure that science, not politics, determines the general framework for salmon recovery.
We must insist that projects be carefully evaluated and demonstrate results. None of the improvements requires a new organization. All of them can be accomplished within existing institutions if we make them a priority. While these steps may not be as visible as a new governing body, in our estimate they are essential for success.
We applaud efforts to pull the region together to fight for our shared interests. But those interests do not include reallocating electric power among states or creating new levels of bureaucracy. Our shared interests are to work together on initiatives that will restore and protect our invaluable fish and wildlife and at the same time preserve our low-cost electric power.
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