Salmon threatened by energy crisis
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FEBRUARY 9, 2001

A major victim of the ongoing energy crisis could be endangered and threatened salmon in the Columbia River basin according to the Bonneville Power Administration, the financially troubled government agency charged with supplying power to much of the Northwest.

Greg Delwiche, the BPA's vice president of generation, on Wednesday said that costly policies aimed at helping save the salmon should be sacrificed so that the agency could meet energy needs without going bankrupt. BPA sells power generated by 29 federally-owned dams to most of the utilities in the Northwest.

Those dams don't always produce the power needed by BPA's customers, however. As a result, BPA has been forced to buy high-priced power on the open market which in turn it resells to its customers. Those customers, many of the publicly-owned utilities, then pass the costs on to consumers.

Delwiche's message to the Northwest Power Planning Council, representing the states of Washington, Oregon Idaho, and Montana, did not go unheard. Charged with balancing such power needs with fish and wildlife protection, the BPA's rising debt and soaring power prices have lead the council to paint a bleak future for salmon protections.

"The situation is grim," said council President Frank L. Cassidy.

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber has asked President George W. Bush to forego the BPA's debt payment to the federal government this year. He says the BPA is being forced to deal with a difficult dilemma -- power or fish -- and relief of its US Treasury payment might prevent it from choosing one over the other.

"I believe that this course of action would be in the best interests of all: Bonneville and its customers, the people of the Pacific Northwest, the Columbia River Indian tribes, and the federal government," Kitzhaber said.

Under treaties signed in 1855, the government is obligated to provide fisheries for the Yakama, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Nez Perce Tribes. In December, the government issued its long-term salmon protection plan aimed in part at meeting those obligations.

Now, the BPA is proposing to relieve itself of some of the plan's provisions this year and wants to reduce the amount of water it releases from federal dams in the spring and summer. By reducing the spillage, the BPA can increase the amount of electricity it produces.

The power increase comes at a cost to salmon, although federal scientists aren't entirely certain on this point. Reducing water flows can hurt salmon in the summer but National Marine Fisheries Service scientists aren't sure about the spring.

The BPA's proposals have to be approved by the four states, the tribes, and other federal agencies. But with tribes already dissatisfied with the salmon recovery plan, attempts at breaking it -- even just temporarily -- might not go over so well.

The nation has focused most of its interest on California's energy crunch as blame is laid on everyone and everything from de-regulation to consumer over-consumption. Environmental protection policies there have been targeted as well, sounding the alarm for conservationist groups like The Sierra Club.

"Environmental protections are not to blame for the current energy shortage, and should not be weakened as a result," said Carl Zichella, a regional representative.

Relevant Links:
The Bonneville Power Administration -
The Northwest Planning Power Council -
The Salmon Recovery Plan -
The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fisheries Commission -

Related Stories:
Dam breaching put off in final plan (Enviro 12/22)