Northwest Could See $100 Million Loss
by Christopher Smith
BOISE, Idaho -- The Pacific Northwest would lose an estimated $100 million in potential power this drought year if five Snake and Columbia River hydroelectric dams are ordered to run turbines at minimum speeds and divert more water over spillways to help young salmon swim to the ocean, analysts say.
The Northwest Power and Conservation Council, which concluded its three-day meeting here Thursday, was briefed Wednesday on potential scenarios if a federal judge in Oregon orders an alternative operating plan for Lower Granite, Little Goose, Upper Monumental and Ice Harbor dams on the Snake and McNary Dam on the Columbia this summer.
The state of Oregon, environmentalists, fishing groups and Indian tribes have sued the National Marine Fisheries Service over the agency's plan governing dam operations to protect endangered salmon species.
The plaintiffs have asked for an injunction to require Bonneville Power Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers to increase spills over the five dams to get more juvenile salmon downstream this year. But the service's operating plan permits the regional power marketing agency and the corps to move fish downstream in trucks and barges rather than divert river flows away from turbines. Flows over spillways do not generate electricity.
"Just the action that calls for diverting more water around turbines, I estimated it to be a $100 million cost, using the summer forecast (electricity) price of $74 per megawatt-hour,'' said John Fazio, a senior analyst for the four-state panel that oversees electric power system planning and fish and wildlife recovery in the Columbia River Basin.
If another request to cut salmon-to-sea travel time by upping the velocity of downstream flows is also ordered by the court, "I just don't how big that cost will be,'' Fazio said Thursday.
Speeding up salmon travel downstream would require releasing additional water from upstream reservoirs or drawing down river levels at the four Snake and four lower Columbia dams, or a combination of both.
Compared to current capacity plans, river sections behind the Snake dams would drop another 6 feet from late June through August and the water behind the Columbia dams would be drawn down another 5½ feet from July through August under the scenario.
"What we've requested in the preliminary injunction is a 10 percent increase in velocity to help the juvenile salmon migrate out to sea, but what we've left open is for the federal government to determine the suite of options they could use to do that,'' said Jaime Pinkham of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "Mortality rates with transportation are too high and we feel the survivability of fish is best when we have better in-stream flows.''
But some council members worry about the financial impact to BPA should the dams be ordered to draw down to "minimum operating pool'' levels this year, when spring and summer runoff is forecast to be the 11th driest in the basin since record-keeping began in 1929.
"One of the things to watch is how close Bonneville is to not being able to make their federal payments,'' said Jim Kempton of Idaho, vice chairman of the council. "We've never defaulted on that and you would not want to do that and create any reason to continue the attack on the BPA system.''
A White House plan to force BPA to charge market rather than wholesale prices for its power was defeated by members of Congress from Western states last month who argued such rate hikes would cripple the region's economy.
Northwest Power and Conservation Council www.nwppc.org
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