Fish, Irrigation Divert
by Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
PORTLAND Helping ocean-bound salmon pass hydroelectric dams is a costly proposition, according to a new analysis by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, but so is diverting water to irrigate crops in the Columbia River basin.
Fish protection and irrigation are easily the two biggest drains on the Northwest's hydroelectricity supply, according to the analysis released Wednesday.
One practice boosts stream flows and pulls water away from dam turbines so that ocean-bound salmon and steelhead smolts can pass the Columbia River basin's network of hydroelectric dams in a safer manner. The other practice sucks water away from turbines by irrigating crops.
The analysis estimates the region sacrifices about $460 million annually that could be earned by driving the fish through turbines, while $250 million is lost by using water to irrigate crops rather than leaving it in the river to generate electricity. Although the calculation of revenue sacrificed to fish passage is nothing new, the four-state council's analysis is the first public accounting of electricity sacrificed to other uses of the river including irrigation, flood control, navigation, recreation and development.
"Since the dawn of time actually since the early '80s the impacts to energy production for fish and wildlife constraints have always been calculated," analyst John Fazio told the eight council members meeting in downtown Portland.
All of the river uses except for fish mitigation and irrigation carried an insignificant cost, Fazio concluded.
The Bonneville Power Administration markets about half of the energy consumed in the region. Costly potatoes
Cataloging the cost of irrigation is a prickly issue for the four-state council's Idaho members, who have long resisted a public accounting of the hydroelectricity sacrificed to grow the state's famous potatoes.
Jim Kempton, one of the council's two Idaho representatives, said water rights granted to farmers pre-date the existence of the dams and are embedded in law. Water used to irrigate crops, therefore, shouldn't be calculated as a cost to the hydropower system.
"It isn't a cost to Bonneville," Kempton said. "It's just the reverse any water that's left over from irrigation is a benefit to Bonneville."
At that, Washington council member Larry Cassidy asked whether Kempton viewed the river's endangered salmon runs in the same manner. "No," Kempton said. "Fish do not have a specified right to the amount of water we elected to provide them."
Later, Cassidy noted that "fish have been here a million years, and water rights have only been here since European migration."
Cassidy, a Vancouver resident who also serves on the U.S.-Canada Pacific Salmon Commission, said he respects water rights but that salmon should be given equal consideration. Economic benefits, costs
The highly engineered environment of the modern Columbia River provides a huge economic benefit to the Northwest, with hydroelectricity accounting for about three-quarters of the total energy used in Washington, Oregon, Montana and Idaho.
The stair-stepping series of reservoirs also provide water for recreation, irrigation and a seaport as far inland as Lewiston, Idaho.
Over the past two years, U.S. District Judge James Redden has ordered Columbia River dam managers to give more consideration to native salmon runs that pre-date all of the river's modern uses. Although biologists generally believe spilling water away from turbines provides a safer route of passage for ocean-bound salmon smolts, the practice saps the dams' ability to generate electricity.
Last year, Redden voiced his frustration with a system that accounts for every dollar sacrificed to protect salmon while paying little attention to hydroelectricity sacrificed to irrigation, flood control and navigation.
"I think we should get those figures out there because we ought to be looking at all of them," the judge said in October. "It all costs money."
Did you know?
The Bonneville Power Administration calculates that it is dedicating $576 million in ratepayer dollars this year in fish- and wildlife-related costs.
With total expenditures of $2.8 billion, Bonneville officials figure these fish-related costs amount to about 20 percent of the budget.
In Clark County, where the average monthly residential bill adds up to $116.80, the average customer can expect to pay $9.50 toward Bonneville's fish-related costs. BPA supplies about 55 percent of the energy consumed in Clark County, with the rest provided by Clark Public Utilities' natural gas-fired River Road Generating Plant.
The Northwest Power and Conservation Council's analysis of costs to the hydroelectric system from nonpower uses of the river can be found here: www.nwcouncil.org/news/ 2006_02/12.pdf
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