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Thursday, April 15, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Pro / Con
No: Don't sell out vulnerable salmon

By Bill Arthur
Special to The Times

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With little regard for science, public policy or law, the Bush administration, through the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), has unleashed an irresponsible proposal to all but wipe out summer spill — a critical salmon-recovery tool used to help young salmon get past deadly dams.

While disappointing, the announcement comes as no surprise and merely continues BPA's 30-year-plus history of poor decision-making and fundamental policy failure, which have cost this region environmentally and financially.

This decision continues an ugly pattern set by the Bush administration to flaunt politics in the face of science and the law.

Under disguise as a three-year "pilot test," BPA's proposal significantly weakens a critical component of the current federal salmon plan — a plan that was already deemed illegal for not living up to its requirements under the Endangered Species Act. In reality, this is anything but a test.

Unfortunately, the Pacific Northwest already knows the devastating consequences of cutting summer spill after a BPA-imposed spill restriction in 2001. Yet, despite this, the agency's so-called test illegally places the burden of proof squarely on the backs of salmon. Moreover, the proposed offsets — like predator removal — would come nowhere close to undoing the harm that this three-year "test" would cause.

In fact, state, federal and tribal fishery agencies and biologists have all harshly criticized BPA's analysis, pointing out that many of the proposed offsets provide negligible biological benefit, while others are simply double counting for previous agency commitments.

BPA's primary motivation for this test seems to be to provide ratepayer relief in the face of higher-than-average electricity rates. According to an analysis by the NW Energy Coalition, this proposal would only save ratepayers between 11 and 52 cents per month on residential bills. This is a meager savings to risk the ruination of salmon, salmon-based communities, tribal culture and the very spirit of the Northwest.

BPA has yet to consider other alternatives that could provide similar ratepayer relief without harming salmon. For example, energy experts have shown that the Pacific Northwest currently has an ample supply of untapped, cost-effective energy conservation potential. A modest investment in salmon-friendly energy conservation could easily help lower residential and industrial energy bills, while maintaining summer spill. This would help keep rates lower for the future while providing salmon-friendly energy and creating more near-term jobs.

With all the fuss lately about rising electricity prices, let us not forget one of the key factors that got us here — poor decision-making by BPA. On the cusp of the 2001 energy crunch and drought in the Northwest, BPA made the irresponsible decision to agree to provide utilities significantly more electricity than it could generate at federal dams.

When the West Coast was slammed by Enron market manipulations, electricity prices were skyrocketing and help from the Bush administration was nowhere to be found, BPA was forced to buy electricity off the open market to fulfill its obligations. This created an economic hole that we are still digging out from today. In this and every other bad decision BPA has made, salmon and salmon-based businesses and communities have paid the price.

To add further insult, saying that millions are being spent to save a couple dozen fish is not only misleading, it is just plain wrong. Instead, this money is potential revenue that Bonneville could make from taking the water tagged for spilling fish and instead putting it through the turbines to generate electricity that the agency could then sell. Neither Bonneville nor the ratepayers own the water in the river and salmon should not be sacrificed just to help Bonneville's bottom line.

Failure of relevant agencies and Northwest political leaders to provide leadership and to make the tough decisions led to the ancient-forest issue spinning out of control and its subsequent settlement in the courts with the help of the rest of the country. The Northwest needs to change the way it does business and forge a real solution for the future. If it won't, then no one should be surprised when others wade into our troubled salmon waters to protect national interests. This could result in less thoughtful solutions that could harm the "special deal" the region enjoys on its electricity prices, and the institutions that provide it.

This isn't a summer spill "pilot test." It is the summer salmon sellout initiative. We can do better for our region, our communities and our salmon — it's a pity the BPA and the Bush administration won't even try.

Bill Arthur is deputy national field director of the Sierra Club. He is based in Seattle.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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