bonneville dam

The Council’s Challenge: Balancing Fish and Families

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council recently released its 250-page Draft Fish and Wildlife Program for public comment. While the general public may not be aware of the Council or what it does, the Council’s actions affect everyone. Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) funds the Council’s activities, but ultimately those funds come from YOU, Northwest residents, via your electric bill.

The Northwest Power Act directs the Council to adopt measures to mitigate for the impact of the federal Columbia and Snake dams on fish and wildlife. These measures are to “protect, mitigate and enhance” fish and wildlife resources while also ensuring an “adequate, efficient, economical and reliable” regional electric power supply for consumers. That is what the law requires, and it’s something we can all get behind: protecting fish and wildlife while maintaining the value of the federal hydrosystem for Northwest residents.

While RiverPartners continues to examine the details of the Draft Program, we think overall it is on the right track. But we urge the Council to continue to hold fast to its duty under the law—by adopting only measures that have a clear and specific connection to federal hydro system operations, as called for in the Northwest Power Act.

Already, anywhere from 15 to 20 percent of your monthly electric bill—a potentially hefty amount depending on your energy use—goes toward these fish and wildlife measures. The measures include costs that BPA incurs to operate the federal dams in a manner that provides safe passage for salmon protected under the Endangered Species Act. In total, the regional Program costs run into the hundreds of millions each year; nearly $14 billion has been spent to date. The fish and wildlife measures recommended by the Council and implemented by Bonneville compose the largest—and most expensive—restoration program for an endangered species anywhere in the nation. It’s certainly not small change or the price of a “latte” every month, as some fish and anti-dam groups like to suggest.

Overall, the Council has done a good job in its Draft Program to balance its commitments to fish and wildlife, and to energy. They, and their staff, deserve accolades for the tremendous amount of work they put into considering 480 recommendations from interested parties, primarily Northwest states and tribes.

Of special importance, the Draft recognizes “that ratepayer funding requires some basic controls and that there is not unlimited funding to address every need for fish and wildlife affected by the development of the federal hydro system, all at once.” Further, the Council directs BPA to fund any new fish and wildlife obligations by identifying potential cost savings within the current Program.

River of MoneyYet we are concerned that the Draft suggests that if such savings cannot be found, more funds should be forthcoming from BPA. We must remember that the Program already is a robust, mature one, in place for over two decades, which has grown steadily in size and cost. Additionally, while we’re pleased the Council directs BPA to find fish and wildlife Program savings before incurring new costs, the Council should work with BPA to find those savings. Both must find efficiencies or reductions in existing Program costs; otherwise, it’s Northwest families and businesses that will pay the price.

Along those lines, we were heartened to see the Council leave out an ill-conceived and potentially dangerous proposal submitted by Oregon and the Nez Perce tribe to “spill” even more water through the federal dams for fish. That proposal violated state water quality laws, could have harmed salmon and might have added another $110 million a year to the fish and wildlife tab—failing the tests of both good science and affordability.

Ahead this summer, the Council faces a long road as they take public comment in hearings throughout the region, before adopting a final Program this fall. RiverPartners members will be there to thank them for their efforts and weigh-in. We will urge the Council to remember its obligations under the law and to all of the groups in the Northwest that feel the impact of its actions: Fish and wildlife as well as the families and businesses that pay the bills.

nwrpThe Council’s Challenge: Balancing Fish and Families