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Commentaries and editorials

Power Council says
Dam, Fish Plan Would Raise Bills

by Michael Jamison
Missoulian, November 25, 2005

KALISPELL - A proposal by environmentalists to change operations at the region's hydroelectric dams would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and could jeopardize the reliability of the Northwest's power supply.

That's according to a report by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, a four-state agency charged by Congress with balancing the needs of fish and wildlife with the need for affordable and reliable hydropower.

The National Wildlife Federation has sought increased warm-weather water spills over Columbia and Snake river dams, as well as increased downstream flows. The changes are intended to help the 2006 migration of young salmon and steelhead.

And while the council's report does not explore the presumed benefit to fish, it does attempt to quantify the costs of such a change.

The proposed operating schedule, according to the report, would raise the price of electricity this winter and also would increase the risk of power shortages.

Specifically, the net cost likely would range between $125 million and $506 million in 2006, the analysis concludes, and the chance of supply falling behind demand would increase from about zero to as much as 7.5 percent.

The proposed water spills will be argued on Dec. 15, in the Portland, Ore., courtroom of U.S. District Judge James A. Redden.

Last month, Redden agreed with National Wildlife Federation attorneys that the federal government's plan to protect threatened salmon and steelhead in the Columbia and Snake rivers was inadequate.

Redden sent officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service back to the drawing board, ordering them to review and replace their 2004 "biological opinion" - essentially the blueprint for dam operations and fish restoration.

National Wildlife Federation president Larry Schweiger has said the $4 billion already spent by the feds to restore fisheries "is water over the dam with pitifully few results." Schweiger praised Judge Redden for ordering the federal agency to rewrite its "bi-op" with the acknowledgement that the hydroelectric dams do, in fact, impact salmon and steelhead populations.

His group has called for complete removal of a small number of dams, as well as an investment in alternative forms of power production. But such measures, if ever accomplished, will surely take decades.

In the meantime, NWF has filed a motion with Redden asking the court to immediately order increased spills and flows.

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council, which is not party to the lawsuits, is an agency of Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington, and is charged with assessing the impacts of various proposals, both to the environment and to the power supply.

"The council is not asserting a position on the plaintiff's proposal," said council chairwoman Melinda Eden. "This is a power system analysis, not a biological analysis. We intend it to assist the region. The council is a regional planning agency - neither a utility nor a fish and wildlife agency."

As such, she said, the council is "in the best position to provide this analysis, because we have expertise in modeling the Northwest power system and because we are neutral in this matter."

According to the council's report, increasing spring and summer spills and flows would require storing more water over the winter months. But winter water stored behind dams does not turn turbines, and although more juice would be produced in warmer months, the wintertime reduction of hydropower generation would have to be made up elsewhere.

Depending upon how much it costs to buy that cold-weather power from other sources, offset by how much income would be generated by increased power production in spring and summer, the council estimates a price tag for NWF's proposal between $125 million and $560 million for 2006.

The large spread is in large part due to uncertainties regarding climate and annual snowpack, regional demand and the price of power in the private marketplace.

Average Change in Hydro Generation
and Cost/Benefit

Period Change in Generation
Average Cost
(cents per kwh)
November 441 -$22 6.9
December -486 $26 7.2
January -4,638 $348 10.1
February -355 $27 11.3
March 1,490 -$65 5.9
April 1-15 -900 $49 15.1
April 16-30 -527 $28 14.7
May 1,459 -$53 4.9
June 320 -$12 5.2
July -868 $40 6.2
August 1-15 12 -$1 n/a
August 16-31 -523 $30 14.9
Total -4,605 $395 this column by bluefish

The analysis also looks at what power planners call "loss of load probability" - the chance that there won't be enough electricity to meet demand.

Currently, that probability hovers around zero for the short-term future. But if the court grants the environmentalists' request, council analysis shows the chance of shortages increasing to 7.5 percent.

The accepted limit in the power industry is 5 percent.

According to the report, the Northwest currently enjoys a surplus of electricity, although that surplus is not the same in all months. In fact, the surplus shrinks to its smallest margin in the winter, when severe cold can send demand through the roof.

That, of course, is exactly the time of year when NWF attorney's would have dams storing, not spilling, water.

However, the council analysis indicates that if operations were flexible enough, if flows could be increased during peak demand, then "loss-of-load probability could be maintained near the present level."

Officers at NWF were not available to comment on the council's findings Friday, and there's no word whether the report will be considered during the Dec. 15 hearing in Redden's court.

The public, however, can read the results online at

Michael Jamison
Power Council says Dam, Fish Plan Would Raise Bills
Missoulian, November 25, 2005

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