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Tribes Push for BPA Rate Increase Over Fish Cost Cuts

by Wil Phinney
Columbia Basin Bulletin - September 20, 2002

Northwest Indian tribes aren't waiting to see if Bonneville Power Administration administrator Steve Wright's suggested cut of $50 million from BPA's fish and wildlife budget is more than an abstract notion.

On Wednesday at Ocean Shores, Wash., the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians approved a resolution that called on the Bonneville Power Administration to raise rates to cover its financial shortfall and take other prudent measures without cutting fish and wildlife or cultural programs.

Earlier this month, Wright challenged the Columbia Basin's federal, state and tribal fish and wildlife managers to identify potential cost reductions that could help the agency limit future power rate increases.

Wright floated the idea of cutting BPA's fish and wildlife costs by 10 percent. A $50 million reduction would still leave the agency's overall fish and wildlife costs $50 million above the funding level during the previous rate period, he said.

But there appears to be some debate over exactly how much might be cut and where it would be cut from.

"It's a real number and a real goal, but a lot of water will go under the bridge before there's a final decision," said Mike Hansen, a spokesman for BPA. "Steve Wright mention it as a targeted amount from a lot of programs. The tone was not that we were cutting $50 million so help us determine where, but can we find $50 million and still meet our obligations."

Hansen said BPA hoped to make substantial cuts through efficiencies and contracting methods. For example, he said, there would be no automatic "rate of inflation type" increases for projects and automatic cost overruns won't be allowed.

"It may be that overruns for projects could be approved, but it won't be happening and then billing us for them," he said.

BPA also hopes to save money by trimming travel and training needs from projects. And projects that don't deliver biological results would be at risk, Hansen said.

"We want to concentrate a lot more on performance measures. We want the biggest bang for the buck. Are we going to reach that 50 million number? Who knows? It's a very ambitious number that may be hard to reach. However, we will not make any reductions that threaten our legal obligations related to the Endangered Species Act."

Hugh Moore at BPA said the $50-million figure was a "general target" and "is not even a proposal yet."

"It was a gut feel that it would be a great thing if we achieved that goal," said Moore. "The status is very much up in the air. Any reduction would occur only if we meet ESA requirements and uphold our obligations under the Northwest Power Act. We won't risk our ability to meet those requirements."

John Harrison, a spokesman for the Northwest Power Planning Council, agreed that Wright's suggestion appears to be just that.

"We haven't heard from Steve Wright directly that cuts should be made," nor where they should be made, said Harrison. "We will resist substantial cuts in the direct program."

Harrison said the Council understands BPA's financial dilemma, but said, "We have not agreed to any cuts at the moment and we will resist cuts. We're trying hard to fit all the project proposals into our budget. Each ecological province has more scientifically sound projects than fit into the budget. It would be difficult to deal with additional cuts."

BPA officials met with leaders from the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians Wednesday to discuss fish funding issues.

"We told BPA they need to develop a partnership with us so we can have open and frank discussions on how to get a power-fish balance," said Kathryn Brigham, a commissioner for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and a member of the Board of Trustees for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatillas. Her husband, Robert, is a gillnet fisherman on the Columbia River near Cascade Locks.

"We told them we're really concerned with the amount of process we are required to go through to get funding. We're putting people into meetings, rather than fish in the rivers," she said.

"For the first time in a long time meeting with BPA, they actually provided an oral summary of what they heard," Brigham said. "They actually listened to some of the things we were saying. We'll have to wait and see what the results are."

The ATNI Economic Development Corporation delivered six pages of comments, which suggested an electricity rate hike and challenged BPA for considering cuts to its fish and wildlife program.

"Bonneville has asked the region to express its values, or the criteria that will drive its choices as it copes with a financial crisis brought about by an over-subscription of power to customers, a fluctuating power market, and increased costs. We are confident that the region will agree with the tribal community and strongly support paying the real cost of electric power.

"The real costs of generating electricity in a hydroelectric system include environmental and fish and wildlife protection costs, cultural resources protection costs, future planning costs, conservation and energy efficiency costs, electrical reliability costs, safety and security costs, and energy services costs. The costs of future system planning are also important. The future sustainability of the system should not be compromised by reactionary financial measures designed to ease short-term utility budget problems."

ATNI said tribes are insulted that BPA should suggest cutting fish and wildlife costs, which would be a breach of trust responsibility and a breach of rate-making promises to meet all fish and wildlife obligations.

"We remind Bonneville that it not only has the 'obligations' under the Endangered Species Act, but also has a duty to provide 'Equitable Treatment' responsibilities under the Northwest Power Act, and has obligations to non-endangered fish and wildlife under tribal treaties," the ATNI statement said.

ATNI said Bonneville should look at a rate hike.

"We should not consider raising rates a failure," ATNI said. "Bonneville rates have consistently been the lowest in the country. Even with large rate increases, even for a few years, we will still be well below average. Our utility companies have become accustomed to low rates and it is unreasonable of them to insist that they stay low when other rates in the region and in the Western interconnection are going up. We can not pretend that we are not part of the rest of the country and that the same forces affecting them do not affect us."

ATNI said cuts should be made if they do not impact programs. The tribal association also suggested upgrading the existing large-scale transmission system, incorporating wind generation with the hydro system and better "savings plans" to take advantage of good water years.

Wil Phinney
Tribes Push for BPA Rate Increase Over Fish Cost Cuts
Columbia Basin Bulletin, September 20, 2002

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