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Commentaries and editorials

Don't Shortchange Salmon

by Editors
The Oregonian, August 4, 2000

BPA may be tempted to divert power to California,
but it shouldn't do it at the expense of migrating salmon

Spare kilowatts are so expensive these days that the Bonneville Power Administration was sorely tempted earlier this week to produce and sell power to California at the expense of migrating salmon.

Wisely, the agency didn't do it. Nor should it do so in the future unless California is undergoing a power emergency threatening public health and safety.

We are not talking about surplus power that was going to waste. What BPA considered doing was to briefly stop spilling water at three dams in order to produce power for California, which was sweltering in a heat wave. The spill helps young salmon pass the dams without going through turbines or fish collection systems. It's a critical part of the salmon recovery effort.

In other words, this action literally would have been a case of selling salmon down the river.

The agency rationalized that to shut off the spill would probably kill only about 2 percent of the tail-end of the run of fall chinook to the sea -- and most of those smolt probably would be hatchery fish, not endangered wild fish.

Even if those calculations were right, this is not the kind of message the BPA ought to be sending Northwest citizens who are being told they must do extraordinary things in the next several years to restore imperiled salmon runs.

Just last week, the National Marine Fisheries Service recommended that all federal agencies, including the BPA, step up their efforts to get the young fish safely by the dams in lieu of a more aggressive strategy of breaching the four lower Snake River dams.

BPA's initial plan was to shut off spill for about four to six hours during the late afternoon when California home air-conditioners were being cranked up full blast. Calling the decision a "judgment call," BPA officials canceled the sale only after it became clear that that there wasn't capacity in the power lines connecting Oregon and California to send the extra electricity.

That wasn't the right reason for abandoning the idea. The right reason is that spilling water over dams to aid fish survival is a higher priority.

Clearly the hot summer days throughout the West have created a booming seller's market for electricity. It had to be mighty tempting for BPA power marketers because last Tuesday it could sell electricity to California for $349.96 per megawatt hour at 5 p.m., compared with just $34.10 at the same time and date last year.

This is not to say that the Northwest should become so provincial that it looks on California's electricity needs with disdain. If BPA could sell surplus power to parched Californians this summer without curtailing the fish-spill operation, it clearly should do it.

The Northwest and the Southwest regions are natural power partners. Traditionally, when Californians need a power transfusion in summer months, we give it gladly knowing that California usually returns the favor when we need a kilowatt-fix in winter months.

The Northwest also needs to act when California reaches a power-deficit emergency in which the public health and safety are at risk.

When the health of people isn't at risk, though, saving salmon should come first.

Don't Shortchange Salmon
The Oregonian, August 4, 2000

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