Dam Critics Press Transition Team
by Rocky Barker
Steve Wright leads one of the largest, most carbon-free power providers in the United States.
The administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration is a Democrat. He just signed contracts with 135 public power customers that are designed to stabilize regional power rates which are among the lowest in the nation.
BPA has a power surplus.
So with climate change a major issue, why does Wright have a target on his back with a Democratic administration prepared to take over? One word: salmon.
The BPA markets about one-third of the electricity consumed in the region. It sells the power produced from 31 federally owned dams on the Columbia River and its tributaries. It also owns and operates 15,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines.
About 20 percent of Idaho's electricity comes from the BPA, through rural electrical cooperatives and municipal utilities such as the one in Idaho Falls.
Wright got the job during the Clinton administration and kept it during the Bush administration because he's an able leader, a smart money-cruncher and because he could deliver, for President George W. Bush, a salmon plan that didn't breach dams.
The plan never has been ruled legal. But over the last eight years, with strong support of Democratic Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, Wright has spread his plan's political support to include all players but the Nez Perce Tribe, Oregon, fishermen and environmentalists.
He did it by passing out hundreds of millions of dollars for habitat and hatchery projects paid for with electricity receipts from the hydroelectric dams that most scientists say are the main barrier to salmon recovery. He also had critical Republican support from Idaho Sen. Larry Craig.
So now that the environmentalists, the Nez Perce Tribe and sportsmen - who have pushed for more than a decade to remove four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington - have friends on the transition team, they are pushing to get Wright replaced. Oregon Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer has joined the cause, calling for Wright's replacement.
The issue is big for the BPA and the Pacific Northwest. Regional congressional leaders have plans for a massive public works project to improve BPA's transmission system and to bring its system into the 21st century with new smart-grid technologies. But the salmon are a physical symbol of the region.
BPA's leader will need to be a visionary and a savvy politician. Critics question whether Wright has the vision.
IF NOT WRIGHT, WHO?
Angus Duncan, a former Northwest Power and Conservation Council member from Oregon who heads the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, is one name that comes up. Another is Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski's natural resources policy director, Mike Carrier.
The problem both these candidates share is they are from Oregon. The political power still rests in Washington, which uses most of BPA's power.
Sara Patton, executive director of the Northwest Energy Coalition, is from Seattle, but her strong support for dam breaching probably gets her a veto from Murray.
Wright has proved to be a survivor so far. And whatever happens, it won't be among the first things on President-elect Barack Obama's agenda.
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