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Columbia Water Likely will be Spilled for Salmon

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, April 28, 2001

Gov. John Kitzhaber reiterates his criticism of the BPA's plans
as not aiding fish enough

The Bonneville Power Administration likely will decide next week to spill water over Columbia River dams to help salmon, even though the action means losing some electricity generation.

Although the decision isn't final, Steven Wright, the agency's acting administrator, said Friday a limited spill is likely, despite this spring's water shortages and stratospheric power prices.

"There are a lot of fish in the river," Wright said at a meeting in Portland of state, tribal and federal officials. "If you are going to start a spill program, that's the time to start it."

Wright made his remarks after exchanging heated words with Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, who blasted the BPA and other federal agencies for not doing enough for salmon.

Kitzhaber, repeating most of a speech he had made to the Northwest Power Planning Council earlier this week, called for Bonneville to buy electricity on the wholesale market so it could spill water for salmon. He also called for the agency to reschedule its debt payment to the federal government so it will have more cash this year for power and salmon.

The governor said the BPA could reap a $1 billion windfall by suspending the spill. He also said an offer the BPA made earlier this week to spend $10 million to help salmon was inadequate.

"I would feel better if you had spent as much energy on fish as power reliability," Kitzhaber told Wright. "Ten million dollars is a joke."

Wright responded sharply, saying that Bonneville is either taking or considering most of the steps outlined by Kitzhaber. "Some of the statements that you made that paint us as drawing a line in the sand and saying 'we will not do these things' are just not accurate," Wright said.

The federal agency sells and distributes electricity generated by 29 Northwest dams and one nuclear power plant. Spilling millions of gallons of water over dams to help young salmon migrate to the sea is required under a federal fish recovery plan. But by declaring power emergencies twice this month, Wright temporarily waived that requirement.

Now, Wright said, Bonneville's cash situation is better -- making it possible to buy some electricity it does not generate -- and recent rains have improved the water outlook slightly. Plus, federal scientists have calculated that even a small amount of spill in May could dramatically help threatened and endangered salmon.

Wright said the federal government will release a final plan governing the operation of federal dams in the Columbia River Basin on May 17.

Wright, after the meeting, insisted that Bonneville's proposals for helping salmon were not impelled by Kitzhaber. But Erich Bloch, a Kitzhaber appointee to the Northwest Power Planning Council and the governor's top adviser on Columbia River matters, said Bonneville's positions appeared to have shifted.

"This is exactly the conversation we should be having," Bloch said. "Rather than pretending that spill doesn't have benefits to fish, particularly in May, we should be recognizing that it does and planning for how both spill and power reliability can be achieved."

Tribal leaders praised Kitzhaber for stressing the importance of salmon to the Northwest. They released their own plan Friday, recommending water be spilled at eight U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dams.

"BPA and the other federal agencies do not own the Columbia River," said Don Sampson, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents four tribes with treaty rights to salmon. "The tribes' rights to take fish hold precedence over BPA's desire to allocate the river for power generation."

Industrial users of the river, however, were not impressed by Kitzhaber. Rob Walton, of the Public Power Council, said the governor said things that sound good but could put the region's electricity supply at risk. The Public Power Council represents publicly-owned utilities that buy electricity from the BPA.

Further, Walton said, there is no evidence that spilling water significantly helps salmon. "We're not willing to sacrifice public safety by taking actions for fish that may not be justified by science," he said.

Kitzhaber said this year's problems, although brought on by a water shortage and an electricity crisis, reveal deeper flaws within the BPA. For one thing, he said, the federal agency is committed to supplying its customers with more electricity than it is able to generate.

"We must address the underlying systemic problems endemic in how we generate and market electric power in the Columbia Basin," Kitzhaber said. "Bonneville is now governed by cobbling together new ad hoc solutions every five years. . . . There has to be a better way."

Kitzhaber said he has asked his staff to develop a proposal for reforming Bonneville, to be released by June 1.

Jonathan Brinckman
Allen Brettman of The Oregonian contributed to this report.
Columbia Water Likely will be Spilled for Salmon
The Oregonian, April 28, 2001

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