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Yakamas Pursue Takeover of Dams

by Lynda V. Mapes, staff reporter
Seattle Times - August 7, 2001

For decades, Indian tribes in Washington have battled dams. But in a turnabout, the Yakama Nation is proposing to team up with an investor-owned utility to run two major dams on the Columbia River.

The Yakamas have joined with PacifiCorp, an investor-owned utility in Portland, in a preliminary agreement to submit a license application to run the Priest Rapids project.

The proposal is in direct competition with the Grant County Public Utility District, which owns and operates the Priest Rapids and Wanapum dams. Together the dams produce 825 megawatts, or enough power to light 600,000 homes.

PacifiCorp's European roots the company is owned by Scottish Power in Great Britain give the battle more flavor, with Grant County PUD of Ephrata seeking to position itself as embattled Minutemen defending American farmers from British plunderers.

"European Corporation Continues its Invasion of the Pacific Northwest," Grant County PUD blared in a press release yesterday.

"American farmers are the spiritual descendents of the 1776 Minutemen. We've overcome long odds against European tyrants before," thundered Bill Judge, PUD commission president, in the release.

The license to run the dams is issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and expires in 2005. PacifiCorp and the Yakama Nation announced plans yesterday to file their competing application in October 2003 for licensing the dams.

It's unusual for the FERC to remove a license from a utility. PacifiCorp in the early 1980s successfully defeated a takeover of its Merwin Dam on the Lewis River, a project that straddles Cowlitz and Clark counties.

PacifiCorp decided to go after the Priest Rapids project because Grant County didn't provide terms favorable enough for long-term power contracts, according to Terry Flores, head of hydropower licensing for PacifiCorp. Among the issues is that the utility's share of power from the dams will be steadily reduced.

The potential takeover could affect electric-utility customers throughout the Pacific Northwest because the dams send power to Seattle City Light, Tacoma Power and Puget Sound Energy, among others.

Puget and other utilities guaranteed the loan for construction of the dams in 1955. In return, they receive low-cost power from the project, which they resell to their customers.

The dams are on the ceded lands of the Yakama Nation in Central Washington. The tribe has a 1.2-million-acre reservation surrounded by the 10 million acres it ceded to the United States by treaty in 1855, including the area of the Priest Rapids project. The treaty guarantees the tribe a role in managing the fish and wildlife in the ceded territory.

The tribe has repeatedly objected to the project, arguing it should be more fish-friendly. It took exception last spring to dam operations it said unnecessarily stranded tens of thousands of out-migrating young salmon in the Hanford Reach.

The tribe also has protested reductions in spills at the project during this year's drought. Routing water through dam spillways helps salmon in their migration to the sea.

Spill has been eliminated or reduced on dams throughout the region by utilities trying to refill reservoirs and use water to make electricity.

Lonnie Selam, chairman of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council, said operating the dams would give the tribe a hand in management of fish and wildlife and enable it and PacifiCorp to provide low-cost power.

Part of the partners' sales pitch is a promise to extend low-cost power to a broader range of customers.

Currently, some surplus power is nearly always available for sale from the dams on the wholesale market. Grant County PUD raked in record revenue during the energy crunch in the past year, with $88 million in power sales in 2000 more than double its best year ever.

The joint-ownership proposal with the tribe is unusual, but not unprecedented.

Portland General Electric, another investor-owned utility, has entered into an agreement to run an Eastern Oregon dam with the Warm Springs Nation.

Lynda V. Mapes, staff reporter
Yakamas Pursue Takeover of Dams
Seattle Times Company, August 7, 2001

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