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Groups Pressing for
Regional Ownership of Power System

by Mark Engler
Capital Press - August 8, 2003

Two irrigator groups angry that there seems no end and little real benefit to expensive salmon and steelhead recovery efforts in the Columbia and Snake rivers are encouraging public utilities in the Northwest to begin discussing the possibility of buying the Federal Columbia River Power System.

The hope is that a new operating authority might succeed in keeping power costs down where the Bonneville Power Administration has failed.

A resolution endorsed by the Columbia-Snake Irrigators Association and the Eastern Oregon Irrigators Association is being circulated to public utilities boards which encourages them to join with other public power entities throughout the region and make an offer to Congress to purchase dams and other power infrastructure on the river system.

According to the resolution, written by Portland lawyer James Buchal, longtime BPA critic and author of "The Great Salmon Hoax," "BPA policies have produced rates that have gradually risen from among the lowest in the nation to among the highest.

"BPA's rates have destroyed tens of thousands of family-wage jobs in the Pacific Northwest even as the number of BPA bureaucrats grows and grows," the resolution says.

"Twenty years of electric power planning under the auspices of the Northwest Power Planning Council and other federal and state entities failed to avoid the electricity crisis of 2001, and failed entirely to meet the Northwest Power Act's goal of an 'adequate, efficient, economical and reliable power supply,' a failure common to all long-term state economic planning exercises."

The resolution further suggests that power system operators "have acquiesced in junk science and mis-interpretations of law" that have cost ratepayers in the Northwest hundreds of millions of dollars a year -- in addition to roughly $2 billion in 2001 alone -- for fish protection and restoration efforts which have resulted in no discernable positive overall affect on endangered salmon and steelhead.

A new "Joint Operating Agency" owned by and beholden to public utilities could both better protect fish and produce cheap power than the federal government is currently doing, the resolution argues.

Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association board representative Darryll Olsen, suggests major, radical changes to the ownership and management of the system are necessary now because "BPA is totally out of control."

"There's really no responsibility or accounting for money that is being spent more and more rapidly by BPA," said Olsen. "There doesn't seem to be any response to the ratepayers or the industry, unless you work for the government or the tribes."

"We're saying it's time for the ratepayers, through their primary power system leadership, which is the utilities, to regain control of Bonneville. If that requires a regional buyout, then so be it."

By the dissemination of the resolution the Columbia-Snake and Eastern Oregon irrigators are opening yet another front against federal hydropower managers and regulators.

Last month the two associations gave notice of intent to sue BPA, along with NOAA Fisheries, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers "for violations of the Endangered Species Act and arbitrary and capricious decision making in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act." They claim that in light of recent salmon and steelhead counts indicating adult fish returns in the Columbia-Snake River systems are stronger than at any time in decades, the various federal agencies with jurisdiction over the rivers are exaggerating the risks of species extinction -- to the unwarranted economic detriment of power and water users.

Agricultural and industrial ratepayers have been unhappy with the general direction in which BPA is headed for some time -- toward evermore significant rate increases, coupled with BPA administrators' inability or unwillingness to hold costs down, said Olsen.

But the "straw that broke the camel's back" came in drought-stricken 2001. "We don't hold the full burden of 2001 over BPA's heads," said Olsen. "But the fact is they entered that period with about $600-$800 million in reserves, and then lo and behold, their long-range forecasts are talking about being down that much."

"Somebody was asleep at the switch," he said. "Somebody screwed up big time at BPA."

Congress created BPA in 1937 during President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration, prior to completion of the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams.

Today BPA's service territory covers Washington, Oregon and Idaho and parts of Montana, California, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming. Wholesale customers that purchase power from BPA include public utility and municipal districts, cooperatives, investor-owned utilities and large industrial users.

Earlier this summer BPA released estimates suggesting that beginning Oct. 1 wholesale power rates will likely rise at least 5 percent over current rates.

Mark Engler is based in Portland.
Groups Pressing for Regional Ownership of Power System
Capital Press - August 8, 2003

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