Governors: Don’t Stop Process
by Gregory Hahn
Western leaders emphasize need for cheap power
The governors of Idaho, Montana, Washington and Oregon — more unified against dam breaching than ever before — signed a letter to President Bush on Thursday asking him to continue the principles of a salmon recovery plan charted two years ago.
That Clinton proposal was thrown out by a federal court last month, and some of the plan´s opponents want the entire “Biological Opinion” to be scrapped while a new one is drafted during the next year.
Gov. Dirk Kempthorne and the other governors said the technical aspects of the Endangered Species Act can be tackled this year, but the basic tenets of the “Bi Op” — namely, a focus on habitat improvement and other steps that would forestall a need to remove the four lower Snake River dams — should continue.
“We should not call a timeout for one year,” Kempthorne said. “That´s not fair to the species.”
The National Marine Fisheries Service hopes it can appease the judge with relatively minor changes to the plan.
The governors reaffirmed and revised an agreement originally signed in July 2000, but this time they focused more attention on an issue that wasn´t as big a deal before the energy crisis that hit California and the West in 2001.
The governors´ role in the debate over how the federal government will protect the salmon under the Endangered Species Act, and whether the courts will accept the government´s plan, is largely advisory.
At a Thursday news conference, the governors talked almost as much about maintaining the Bonneville Power Administration system of federal hydroelectric power and low energy rates as they did about salmon recovery. And the governors´ agreement, while asking the BPA to report back with cost-saving measures by the end of year, did not oppose the BPA´s hopes to cut its salmon recovery spending by as much as 25 percent.
Washington Democratic Gov. Gary Locke and Montana Republican Gov. Judy Martz said the preservation of the Northwest´s low energy rates was a key part of revitalizing the area´s economy.
Oregon Democrat Ted Kulongoski — who replaced John Kitzhaber, the only Northwest governor who supported breaching the dams — said the Northwest should have both cheap power and salmon runs.
Bonneville Power Administrator Steven Wright met with the governors in a closed meeting Thursday and spoke with them from the dais at a news conference that followed. He said the Western energy crisis made the governors more aware of the importance of the Bonneville system that produces much of the Northwest´s low-cost power.
The four Snake River dams in question make up just a fraction of the power-producing capabilities of the system, but at their peak in the spring, the dams could power a city the size of Seattle.
Neither Wright nor the governors directly talked about BPA´s desire to cut its spending on salmon recovery, but the governors´ agreement asks the BPA to explain all the ways it is saving money in operations and other costs.
Kempthorne said that states such as Idaho, which have cut many departments by more than 10 percent because of the sluggish economy, want to know that the BPA is making similar efforts.
But on Wednesday in Washington, D.C., a spokesman for Northwest American Indian tribes told senators he didn´t think BPA was doing enough to maintain the recovery spending.
“Bonneville continues to provide the cheapest electricity in the United States in part because it has not internalized the full cost of its fish and wildlife responsibilities that are normally borne by power plant operators,” said Olney Pratt Jr., executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. “Our analysis shows that BPA could meet funding levels for high-priority fish and wildlife projects and still be 6 to 14 percent below market prices for electricity. This additional funding would add only about $1.90 per month for the average consumer.”
At Thursday´s Boise news conference, Wright, standing with the four governors, made it clear that the states still consider low power rates one of their highest priorities — perhaps, some say, at the expense of other interested parties.
“You didn´t see a tribal chair up there,” Idaho Rivers United spokesman Bert Bowler said.
Bowler said his environmental group doesn´t necessarily oppose the governors´ desire to maintain the recovery plan for the next year, and the group praised Kempthorne and the others for making it clear that the goal should be to restore sustainable, fishable wild salmon runs, not just prevent extinction.
“I think it would be pure chaos if they were to vacate the ´bi op,´” he said.
But Bowler said his group and others still believe the fish cannot recover unless the dams are breached. Changes to upstream habitat will not overcome the salmon deaths caused by the slack water, thrashing turbines and large water-pressure changes presented by the four dams, he said.
“I just don´t think it´s possible,” he said.
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