Kitzhaber says BPA forsaking fish relief 

Oregon's governor stuns the agency with harsh criticism of policies that give priority to electricity prices in the Northwest 

Thursday, April 26, 2001

By Jonathan Brinckman of The Oregonian staff 

Gov. John Kitzhaber on Wednesday accused the Bonneville Power Administration and other federal agencies of improperly abandoning their responsibilities to help salmon in a year of water shortages and skyrocketing electricity prices.  

The governor's speech, which BPA officials said they were not expecting, took place at a Spokane meeting of the Northwest Power Planning Council. The power council, an agency of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana, also did not escape the governor's criticism. 

"Both the council's efforts and those of the federal agencies fail," Kitzhaber said. "While both plans provide electrical reliability, they fail to utilize all tools at our disposal to continue our efforts to restore the health of the salmon and steelhead populations of the Columbia Basin. 

"To me and, I believe, to many people in the region as well, this is unacceptable."  It was Kitzhaber's most pointed challenge yet to the federal government's management of the Northwest's vast hydropower system and whether it should be run first for people or fish. 

In recent weeks, acting BPA Director Steve Wright has twice declared power emergencies, allowing the agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to avoid tough endangered species rules that protect several runs of steelhead and salmon. Wright has made it clear that dams and reservoirs throughout the Columbia River Basin would be run -- at least in the short term -- so that all stored water would be used for electricity generation, even though some fish would be killed in doing so. 

Kitzhaber tried Wednesday to persuade the power council to counter the BPA's stance. He said the BPA could buy water from irrigators that could be used for both electricity and salmon, and he added that the BPA should immediately set aside additional funds to help salmon harmed by power production. 

He took everyone by surprise. 

BPA officials said the agency already is taking most if not all of the actions Kitzhaber urged. 

" 'Baffled' is the best word to use," said Ed Mosey, a BPA spokesman. "We just don't understand why the governor would be so critical if he knew what we were up to." 

It was not the first time Kitzhaber ruffled feathers in stepping up for salmon. 

He surprised Washington Gov. Gary Locke in mid-1999 with a Seattle speech proposing that the four Northwest states create an agency that could buy the BPA from the federal government, putting decisions over salmon and power closer to home. 

And in February 2000, he became the Northwest's first state or federal elected official to call breaching of dams a reasonable option for salmon restoration. In a Eugene speech before the Oregon chapter of the American Fisheries Society, he said removal of four federal dams on the lower Snake River clearly would aid salmon runs. 

This time, Kitzhaber focused on dam operations in a year in which water is low and power prices stratospheric. The water shortage puts the BPA in dire straits, because it must buy whatever electricity it cannot generate, risking insolvency. 

The BPA, backed by other federal agencies such as the National Marine Fisheries Service, has proposed that, for now, water should not be sent over dam spillways to give young salmon safer passage and a swifter ride to the ocean. The federal salmon recovery plan says millions of gallons of water each spring and summer should be diverted over spillways. 

Since the BPA's first emergency declaration three weeks ago, the Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates the federal dams, has sent every possible drop of river water through turbines to keep up with electricity demand. 

The power council has backed the BPA and the other federal agencies so far. The council will make its final recommendation on river priorities today. 

Larry Cassidy, a Washington appointee and council chairman, said the council would consider Kitzhaber's remarks. 

"Kitzhaber has always been a strong voice for the fisheries resource," Cassidy said. "I think the most important thing he said is that if we take actions that hurt fish, we need to have mitigation measures for fish clearly spelled out." 

Kitzhaber did praise the BPA for developing a river operation plan that gives the Northwest an 80 percent chance of avoiding rolling blackouts this summer and fall. But he said that wasn't good enough. 

"This plan for electricity reliability -- as important as it is -- comes at an unnecessarily high cost to the Northwest's other important values," Kitzhaber said. 

In addition to its obligations to salmon under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. government has long-standing treaties with tribes that accord them rights to salmon. 

Kitzhaber also urged the BPA to create a quicker mechanism for sending more water over spillways if rainfall is heavier than expected and to budget for the purchase of power from outside the region, allowing it to accommodate salmon and people. 

Wright, the BPA's administrator, said the agency now seeks feedback on how it should balance electricity and salmon. The federal government is scheduled to issue its final plan for river operations Friday. 

"What the governor is suggesting is that first, we talk more risk with reliability, and second, that we spend more money," Wright said. "We welcome suggestions." 

You can reach Jonathan Brinckman at 503-221-8190 or by e-mail at