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Council Asks BPA to Make Power Top Priority

by Michelle Cole
The Oregonian, June 28, 2001

A Northwest power panel tells the agency to only spill water for fish
when electricity needs are satisfied

PENDLETON -- Faced with the challenge of ensuring enough power for the region and providing water for threatened fish this summer, the Northwest Power Planning Council proved reluctant Wednesday to endorse any action that might increase the risk of blackouts.

Council members instead advised the Bonneville Power Administration to continue sending water through electricity-generating turbines on its eight lower Snake and Columbia river dams and to spill only water that can be spared without compromising the power supply this fall and winter.

BPA acting administrator Steve Wright declared power emergencies this spring, allowing dam operators to waive requirements of the federal government's salmon recovery plan and send water through the turbines. The federal agency markets about half of the region's power, generated at 29 federal dams and one nuclear power plant, and buys some electricity on the wholesale market.

In May, the agency ordered a limited spill, about one-third of what was called for by the salmon recovery plan for that peak migration month. On Wednesday, Wright sought the council's recommendation on summer operation of the region's hydrosystem. "I'm beginning to see lights at the end of a fairly dark tunnel," he said.

A power planning council analysis suggests that the region faces a 12 percent chance of blackouts this winter because of potential energy shortages. That's more optimistic than the 17 percent estimate of three weeks ago and the 20 percent estimate in March.

But the 12 percent estimate depends on storage of extra water in a Canadian reservoir and on providing no spill for fish this summer. The estimate also assumes that the region's only nuclear power plant, the Columbia Generating Station at Hanford, is operating.

The plant was shut down for refueling and maintenance last month and was supposed to have been back on the power grid this week. Instead, problems with a valve have delayed the plant's return to operation until this weekend at the earliest.

"There's still a lot of uncertainty," said Dick Watson, director of the council's power division.

There's slightly more certainty about what consequences near-record low river flows and the power shortage will have on fish. In a normal year, the federal government spills water over its dams to give young fish safer passage while they are migrating from freshwater to the ocean.

Without a spill this summer, the death rate for endangered Snake River fall chinook will increase, said James Ruff, senior fishery policy analyst with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Although planning council members were clear that keeping the lights on this winter is a priority, they also directed Wright to investigate the possibility of buying power on the open market, where prices are falling after skyrocketing for the past year. If such purchases can be made, Wright said, some spill for fish might be possible this summer.

Tribal officials want the agency to do far more for the fish.

"The tribal position is that spill is necessary," said Roy Sampsel, a spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents four tribes with treaty rights to salmon and steelhead. With power prices falling and electricity demand reduced through conservation and BPA agreements with utilities and industry, it's time to meet the needs of fish, he said.

Sampsel doesn't think the council's decision will be the last word on summer spill. The BPA meets Friday with tribal, federal and state officials for further discussion.

Michelle Cole
Council Asks BPA to Make Power Top Priority
The Oregonian, June 28, 2001

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