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Commentaries and editorials

Fish vs. Power on the Columbia

by Editors
Seattle Times - April 7, 2004

The Bonneville Power Administration's proposed tinkering with the Columbia River system understandably makes advocacy groups nervous about its effect on endangered salmon. But the proposal to reduce summer spill over dams to gain power is worth a carefully controlled experiment if salmon runs can be maintained.

Bonneville has proposed a three-year pilot plan to reduce spill, which helps push young fish past the dams, mostly in August so more power could be generated and sold. Bonneville plans to invest in mitigation to make up for the expected loss of about 10 endangered fish as well as about 19,000 nonlisted fish. Mitigation plans include predator control and improvements to salmon-spawning habitat.

The net benefit for the region's ratepayers is expected to be about $35 million, which could mean a 3 to 4 percent reduction in Bonneville's wholesale rates. The federal agency, which markets the power generated off federal Northwest dams, has been under pressure from customers and the Northwest congressional delegation to reduce costs after Bonneville's rates jumped about 50 percent after the 2001 energy crisis.

The proposal still must pass muster with NOAA-Fisheries and, potentially, a federal judge overseeing NOAA's rewrite of its biological opinion for the Columbia-Snake river system.

Many, including tribes and environmental groups, are opposed to reducing spill, saying it is the most reliable and effective way to assist young fish downstream. Fish and wildlife managers in Oregon and Washington are skeptical but are cooperating with proposals for mitigation.

Bonneville should embrace the fish managers' concerns that the experiment have no negative net effect on fish runs. Bonneville administrator Steve Wright says the experiment can be halted at any time if it appears to fail. He should work with state fish managers to reach consensus on reasonable triggers to stop the plan.

Bonneville, and its ratepayers, spend a lot of money on fish-protection measures more than $600 million annually, compared with about $650 million in operating costs. The agency would be remiss if it ignored ways to ensure that money is being spent as efficiently as possible.

But the agency should make sure any changes do no net harm to fish runs.

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.

Fish vs. Power on the Columbia
Seattle Times, April 7, 2004

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