the film
Commentaries and editorials

Power Crunch Threatens Fish Operations

by Chris Mulick, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, August 2, 2000

Environmentalists called for better energy management plans Tuesday after California narrowly avoided electrical blackouts that could have stopped fish-friendly operations at Columbia River dams.

And the Bonneville Power Administration, which operates most of the power transmission lines in the Northwest, says it is seeking more flexibility so it doesn't have to use water reserved for fish to generate electricity.

West Coast energy surpluses are dwindling, and California has spent much of the summer close to the edge, particularly when temperatures and the resulting demand on air conditioners have soared. The problem has been magnified by robust energy demand in the Northwest that has limited the amount of power that can be exported south.

For the seventh time this summer, the California Independent System Operator, which controls most of the transmission lines in the state, declared a Stage 2 emergency Tuesday. That kicks in every time energy surpluses drop below 5 percent and calls for large commercial and industrial users to curtail operations to conserve energy as called for in their power sales contracts.

The state also neared a Stage 3 emergency, which is called when surpluses drop below 1.5 percent and blackouts are expected. For much of the afternoon Tuesday, it appeared as if the BPA would use water now being diverted away from turbines to help flush juvenile fish over the dams to generate additional power.

"The emergency is very real," BPA Administrator Judi Johansen said in a press release issued shortly after noon. "I have been assured it is a human health and safety issue. The elderly, sick and infants are particularly vulnerable in extreme temperatures when there are power failures."

It would have been the second time this summer Bonneville would have used water reserved for fish for additional electricity generation in a power crunch. But the blackouts never materialized.

"They came extremely close," said BPA spokesman Ed Mosey. "They were pushed to the brink, but not over the edge."

Environmentalists say Bonneville should have better backup plans in place in case of emergency. They wouldn't have objected to using fish water if needed Tuesday but said such a crisis can be averted by interrupting electricity supply to Northwest industrial customers, such as the region's power-guzzling aluminum plants.

"They should be better prepared for something like this," said Mark Glyde, a spokesman for the Northwest Energy Coalition. "The fish have taken the hit, and it doesn't need to be that way."

During a late June power crunch, Bonneville negotiated new agreements with a few of its industrial customers that allow the agency to buy back power during times of peak demand. The agency also is negotiating for the same authority in new contracts that will take effect next year.

"We're interested in anything that would give us additional flexibility," Mosey said.

Had Bonneville ceased fish spill operations at the dams Tuesday, it would have had a minimal effect.

As it turns out, most of the fall chinook salmon smolts heading downstream already have made it through the lower Columbia. Bonneville projected using the water for power production would have increased the mortality rate by a mere 2 percent or less during a four-hour period.

Even so, the event illustrates the need to develop new backup plans for handling power shortages that don't interrupt spills for fish, said Chris Zimmer, a spokesman for Seattle-based Save Our Wild Salmon.

"We can't make it the way we commonly deal with the problem," he said. "If anything, we ought to learn from today."

Chris Mulick
Power Crunch Threatens Fish Operations
Tri-City Herald, August 2, 2000

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation