House Told ESA
by Lynn Francisco
An effort to revise the Endangered Species Act picked up steam last week as the U.S. House Water and Power Subcommittee heard from rural cooperative associations that say species recovery is costing too much and producing too little.
Steve Eldridge, manager of the Umatilla Electric Cooperative in Hermiston, Oregon, cited soaring power costs that he said were driven in part by ESA mandates.
"Currently, 28 percent of our wholesale power bill is made up of fish and wildlife costs," he said. "New spending of an additional $300 million per year will soon be proposed. Even though we have 15 species of listed fish, we do not know what will constitute recovery. There is no end in sight."
The hearing followed a concerted effort by House Resources Chair Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) to revamp the ESA. Water and Power Subcommittee Chair George Radanovich (R-Calif.), taking up the gauntlet for Pombo, blasted the ESA as a law that has "spent billions of taxpayer dollars," and "made electricity more expensive and lined the pockets of many lawyers, yet . . . has a one percent success rate at best."
"Since these costs are passed directly to customers, it's safe to say that when many in the West turn on their light switches, the ESA meter is running," said Radanovich.
Scott Corwin, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Generating Cooperative, said the ESA "has had a large impact on our business because we buy almost all of our power from BPA." Citing figures showing that Bonneville will have spent $7 billion on salmon recovery by the end of this year, Corwin said PNGC customers are "struggling" with the level of rate increases.
"This is an enormous cost," he said. "It has a rate impact that has a harsh effect on our economy. At the very least we ought to have accountability."
Corwin maintained that PNGC's position "is not totally numbers driven."
"It's not a matter of whether the ESA should exist," he said. "We are all in agreement that we need to mitigate the impact of the hydro system, but the question is, are we doing it in a way that makes sense?"
Umatilla Electric, which belongs to PNGC, asked the subcommittee to add performance standards to the ESA, as a way to bring more accountability. The co-ops also argued that "the cost of recovery actions must be paid for by everyone, not just segments of society."
In addition, Eldridge said the federal government must stop allowing "non-selective harvest of endangered or threatened species."
But Olney Patt, with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, argued that the federal government brought on the decline in fish and wildlife when it decided to allocate scarce water resources.
"It is those decisions that put the long-term viability of the salmon resource in jeopardy. It is those decisions that set up a conflict between consumers of cheap hydropower and those that are dependent upon a healthy salmon resource," he said.
Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), a member of the subcommittee, supported the rural co-ops' call for change in the ESA, saying species recovery decisions should be "driven by sound science."
"We need to ensure that the ESA and other federal protection laws do not strangle us by putting a chokehold on our ability to manage species recovery while also utilizing a river system that provides vital power, transportation and recreation to our region," said Walden.
The Oregon lawmaker has written legislation that would require the federal government "to give greater weight to scientific or commercial data that is empirical or has been field tested or peer reviewed." He promised to introduce the measure soon.
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