The Heat Is Online

Drought Forces Oregon To Choose Power Over Salmon

BPA issues emergency power order

The declaration will allow water to be used for generating electricity and not to save fish

The Oregonian, April 4, 2001

Citing a deepening water shortage, the Bonneville Power Administration on Tuesday declared a power emergency in the Northwest and said it will forgo spilling water over dams to help salmon swim to sea and instead send it through turbines to generate electricity.

The action will help Bonneville avoid the twin specter of rolling blackouts this summer and spending $1.4 billion or more to buy power, agency officials said.

"The situation on the river has become so dire that we had to declare an emergency," said Ed Mosey, a spokesman for the federal agency. "We're trying to avoid the death spiral where the electricity supply starts to shrink and prices start to skyrocket."

By declaring the emergency, the agency is no longer bound by strict provisions of the federal Endangered Species Act, which protects 12 runs of Columbia River Basin salmon. Agency officials left open the possibility of spilling water later this year.

In the absence of a declared emergency, the federal salmon recovery plan requires the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to spill millions of gallons of water over dams each spring and summer to give young salmon a safer way to reach the ocean. But water spilled for salmon in one year can generate enough electricity to supply 660,000 homes.

Following Bonneville's announcement, the corps said it would not commence spilling at any of its eight Columbia and Snake river dams. Doug Arndt, chief of fish management for the corps' Northwest Division, said he agreed with Bonneville's action.

"We've seen the material that BPA has," Arndt said. "I hope everyone appreciates that there is nothing we can do. Mother Nature is running this one."

Northwest tribes with treaty rights to Columbia River salmon, however, said Bonneville acted prematurely. They said the agency should have first exercised other options, such as increasing conservation to cut power demand or deciding to postpone its annual payment of more than $700 million to the U.S. Treasury.

Moreover, they issued a warning: "BPA should in no way look upon their emergency declarations as a vacation away from treaty law," said Charles Hudson, a spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents four tribes with treaty fishing rights. "We expect a full accounting of revenues saved, fish lives lost and damages to the tribal fishery. There will be a bill to pay."

Others joined the corps in supporting Bonneville.

Scott Corwin of the Pacific Northwest Generating Cooperative said Bonneville now can produce the power it needs to meet demand without draining inland storage reservoirs. Corwin, whose organization represents rural electric cooperatives throughout the Northwest, said water in those reservoirs can be used as a reserve for next year, as a source of emergency power or to help salmon later this summer.

"Keeping water in those reservoirs gives us flexibility," Corwin said. "In an emergency, flexibility is key."

Bonneville officials said the hydropower system will be operated without spilling until at least April 13, when the federal government will release a full operation plan for the spring and summer.

The total amount of water in the Columbia River Basin is forecast to be 57 percent below average, the second-lowest amount of water since record keeping began in 1929.

"This was a very painful, difficult decision, but the drought has so depleted water supplies that the reliability of the region's electricity system is in peril," said Steve Wright, acting BPA administrator.

Salmon may lose to power

The Northwest Power Planning Council says water must be diverted from fish-aiding spillways to generators

The Oregonian, March 28, 2001

The Northwest will make it through the summer and fall without electricity shortages only if it uses Columbia and Snake river water to drive turbines instead of using it to save salmon, according to the Northwest Power Planning Council.

The council, in detailing its findings Tuesday, said the action would kill up to 10 percent of the young salmon leaving the Columbia River for the sea.

"This is an emergency," said Larry Cassidy, council chairman. "It's critical we do the best we can to avoid power supply problems."

Cassidy said the region's deepening drought makes it necessary to consider suspending salmon-saving measures. The alternatives, he said, include a high risk of rolling blackouts, or having the Bonneville Power Administration spend $1.4 billion to buy free-market electricity to meet the Northwest's demand, possibly pushing the agency into the red.

"There aren't any good choices," he said.

The federal salmon recovery plan, required by the Endangered Species Act, says that millions of gallons of water traveling down the Columbia and Snake rivers each spring and summer should be diverted from turbines to spillways to give young salmon a safer ride to the ocean.

But spilling prevents the generation of enough power to supply about 660,000 households. Though required by federal law, salmon-saving measures can be suspended if the BPA declares a power emergency.

The power council, comprising two governor appointees each from Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana, will make final its analysis next week and advise the federal government on what to do. The council is charged with balancing wildlife protection and electricity production in the vast Columbia River Basin.

But on Tuesday, Cassidy, who represents Washington, was plain: This year, the region cannot afford to spill water.

"You could interpret what we presented today as a recommendation to the federal agencies," Cassidy said. "These are difficult choices. But you've got to make them or you end up dithering, and that's the worst possible outcome."

He said if the spill schedule is largely abandoned -- with dramatically reduced spills only at Bonneville and John Day dams -- the BPA will be able to generate the power it needs while keeping some extra water in inland storage reservoirs. That water, Cassidy said, would reduce the chances of a power shortfall next year.

Columbia Basin tribes reacted Tuesday with outrage. They called spill essential to restoring salmon.

"It appears that the power planning council, with this announcement, is abandoning one half of its mandate: protecting fish," said Charles Hudson, a spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents four tribes with treaty fishing rights to salmon and steelhead.

"We're getting sick and tired of the financial sword being held over the heads of fish."

Conservationists, too, said the spill should not be abandoned.

"This puts our industry in jeopardy," said Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. "Over and over scientists have called spill the safest way to get fish down the river. This is the future being messed up."

Scott Bosse, a biologist with Idaho Rivers United, a Boise-based conservation group, said his organization has called for additional water to be released from agricultural reservoirs in Southern Idaho. The National Marine Fisheries Service or the Bureau of Reclamation, he said, should order water released or buy it with money provided by the BPA.

"We believe there are ways that he federal agencies can meet the needs of fish without compromising our ability to generate power," Bosse said.

Eric Bloch, an Oregon member of the power council, said that while decreasing spill may be necessary, he would wait until the council meeting next week before deciding on a proposal.

"The Northwest Power Act gives salmon and power equal status," he said. "I think we ought to remember that before we recommend any plan that isn't balanced."

Cassidy, the council chairman, called increased conservation and electricity production by fossil-fuel generation crucial to decreasing power demands on the hydrosystem. But he ruled out the possibility of accepting rolling blackouts.

"The whole basis of Bonneville's past history is to keep the lights on and keep industry going," said Cassidy when asked if blackouts were an option. "I've never seen anything that would support that kind of analysis."