BPA Wants to Adjust Water for Salmonby Robert McClure
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 31, 2004
Holding more of it back would cut costs; groups upset
Seeking to hold down Pacific Northwest electricity rates, federal officials yesterday unveiled a controversial proposal to hold back water normally used to help young salmon travel safely past power-generating dams to the sea.
By withholding the water and using it later to generate additional electricity, the Bonneville Power Administration hopes to scale back a rate increase later this year that could boost electric bills about 3 percent.
The idea was immediately attacked by environmentalists and Native American tribes, who pointed out that the federal dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers already have failed for years to meet legally binding targets for water flow in the rivers to help salmon. They predicted fish would die by the tens of thousands.
But utilities and agriculture interests called it a step in the right direction, saying fish could be saved by taking other steps, such as paying people to catch more fish that eat young salmon. The BPA has been under pressure from utilities and others to hold down costs.
"The challenge that we have is to find the most efficient operation we can," said BPA Administrator Stephen Wright, adding that fish would continue to be protected. "We are committed to accomplishing the goal, committed to accomplishing the mission, and we're trying to find the most cost-effective way to do so."
At issue is a decade-old practice at three dams on the Columbia and one on the Snake. In July and August, when river flows slow down, some young salmon are allowed to travel through underwater gates in the dams rather than traveling past the turbines -- big metal blades that can harm the fish.
But this allows precious water past the dams without it being used to generate power. Moving the fish through the river faster helps them avoid potentially lethal hot water and predators.
BPA officials say they will find a way to make up for the fish losses -- but acknowledged they don't have a final plan for doing that. Two measures that would make up for about half the projected fish losses are:
The overall impact on salmon should be minimal, BPA officials said, because most young salmon already have passed out to sea in August, when most of the holding back of water would go on. The changes, if approved, would begin this summer.
If no changes are made, the BPA anticipates having to increase wholesale electric rates by 5 percent starting Oct. 1, Wright said. Generally speaking, that would translate into increases in residential rates by 2.5 percent to 3 percent, said BPA spokesman Mike Hansen.
The moves are expected to save the BPA $35 million to $45 million a year. The BPA annually gives up about $77 million in potential revenue through the program to help salmon pass dams.
The BPA's annual power budget is about $2.7 billion.
Both the Oregon and Washington Fish and Wildlife departments have said the idea is inconsistent with a federal plan for saving threatened Snake River salmon. However, governors of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana released a statement saying they would support the idea if the National Marine Fisheries Service certified that the BPA has figured out a way not to harm salmon.
"By any scientific and fairness analysis, this proposal flunks. ... It's all about the money," said Jim Martin, a conservationist and former fisheries chief at Oregon Fish and Wildlife. "I spent my entire life working on these fish, and I continue to be disappointed by where this administration, and BPA in particular, is headed."
Charles Hudson, a spokesman for the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, noted that extra power generated in August is not needed in the Northwest.
"What we see this ... as is a selling out of a Northwest resource, salmon, to keep California air-conditioning on," Hudson said. "It's a deeply flawed proposal."
Two of the state's congressmen agreed.
"How many more salmon must die before the federal agencies and federal government recognize we must have a viable long-term strategy to return salmon runs to healthy historic levels?" Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., said in a statement.
"The federal agencies deserve credit for at least cutting back on summer spill, but unfortunately partial actions fall short of what's really needed," said Republican Rep. Richard "Doc" Hastings. "Our region simply cannot afford this costly, wasteful mandate."
But the proposal won guarded praise from the Coalition for Smart Salmon Recovery, a group that represents utilities, agricultural groups and Weyerhaeuser. Further rate reductions are necessary, they said.
"They're all real concerned about the state of the economy and the cost of power, because it affects the way they do business," said Shauna McReynolds, a spokeswoman for the coalition. "There's ways to help the fish and reduce costs."
bluefish does the math for your convenience: BPA estimates that eliminating summer spill would provide 1.15 - 1.49 million Megawatt*hours (MWh) of "surplus" electricity to sell (typically to California) at an estimated average price of $32/MWh (yielding $37 - $46 million). Prices of course will vary with time of day and electricity market conditions. BPA estimates that elimination of summer spill could potentially provide a 2% electricity rate reduction.
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