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Steve Wright:
NW Power Boss for Life?

by Joel Connelly
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 3, 2010

Steve Wright has been reappointed administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration, a post he held in the Bush Administration and the Northwest's most important federal job.

But Wright's retention at the helm of the Portland-based power bureaucracy disappointed environmental groups and fisheries advocates, and opens a breach between greens and the Obama administration.

"Instead of 'Change We Can Believe In' we got change that didn't happen," said Bill Arthur of the Sierra Club.

In announcing that yesterday's power boss is also tomorrow's, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said: "Steve Wright has proven to be an adept leader of an agency critical to the well being of the Northwest that is also contributing to meeting our national objectives."

Wright was hailed by Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

Murray had openly championed his retention. Wright, a Washington, D.C., veteran, was named acting administrator in 2000, and was formally appointed by President Bush in 2002.

Bonneville is the federal agency that markets power from federal dams on the Columbia-Snake River system, and electricity from the nuclear plant operated by Energy Northwest (formerly the Washington Public Power Supply System) at Hanford in Eastern Washington.

Under Wright, Bonneville has been fairly vigorous in promoting energy efficiency -- a fact noted by Chu.

But the agency has used all its bureaucratic and public relations clout in a prolonged effort to halt the spring and early summer "spill" of water over dams. The spill increases river flow and hastens the migration of young salmon through reservoirs to the Pacific Ocean.

The spill, coming at a time of year when Bonnevile sells electric power to California, costs the agency money. Bonneville announced in 2005 that it would stop spilling water, and mounted a propaganda campaign around the region to support its policy.

Washington politicians acquiesced, but Gov. Ted Kulongoski of Oregon fought the feds. Fisheries groups obtained an injunction from U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland requiring that water continued to be spilled.

"The reappointment is not good news for salmon," said Pat Ford, executive director of the regional group Save Our Wild Salmon. He commended Wright on a personal level as "decent" and "capable" but said his agency has consistently worked against Columbia River salmon recovery.

Bonneville has "been fighting spill every single year," added Ford. "They fought it when Bush was in office. The Obama administration has continued to fight spill. We have had to renew it by injunction or the threat of injunction.

"Under the new Obama salmon plan -- which very much resembles the Bush salmon plan - spill is left to the discretion of the federal government . . . If you are not spilling, you are killing salmon."

Judge Redden is expected to rule on the legality and adequacy of the Obama salmon plan later this year.

Wright is an up-through-the-ranks employee of the Portland-based agency. He went to work in Bonneville's conservation office 29 years ago. He managed the agency's California office in the 1980's, and in the 1990's managed Bonneville's Washington, D.C., office.

In naming him administrator in 2002, Bush administration Energy Secretary E. Spencer Abraham said Wright "has demonstrated a bipartisan ability to work with the many constituencies in the region and the nation."

Arthur had a more critical assessment of Wright's performance.

He said the Bonneville boss deserves a "B" on energy efficiency, a "C" on development of new renewable energy sources - notably wind - but "a solid and sanctified 'F' when it comes to fish."

"Steve is probably the best we could get under a Bush administration, but I would hope for better under an Obama administration."

While federal salmon policy comes officially from NOAA - the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - Bonneville has played a dominant role in developing both the Bush and Obama salmon plans. The Obama administration just got around to naming its regional fisheries director a month ago.

Murray and Cantwell, in praising Wright's reappointment, breathed barely a word about salmon.

"I've had the pleasure of working with Steve for years and I am continually impressed by his strong leadership and commitment to the Pacific Northwest," Murray said in a prepared statement.

And Cantwell, in her statement, added: "Steve first took the helm at BPA during the Western power crisis and led the organization through some of the most challenging times in its history."

Joel Connelly
Steve Wright: NW Power Boss for Life?
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 3, 2010

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