Council to help BPA cut budget for salmon

Friday, December 20, 2002
By ERIK ROBINSON, Columbian staff writer

Washington State - Members of the Northwest Power Planning Council agreed Thursday to help the Bonneville Power Administration slash funding for salmon restoration, in light of Bonneville's latest financial crisis.

The four-state council convened a special meeting in Portland to respond to BPA Administrator Steve Wright's plea for help.

Facing a projected shortfall of $500 million during the rate period that began last October and ends in 2006, Wright announced last week that Bonneville would spend just $139 million this year on fish and wildlife in the Columbia basin. The power planning council, which advises Bonneville, had expected the federal energy marketing giant to spend almost $180 million on environmental projects this year.

Larry Cassidy, a Vancouver resident who chairs the power council, said the council had no choice but to help Wright fill his half-billion-dollar budgetary hole.

"We don't have the authority to stop what he's doing only the secretary of energy or the president has that," Cassidy said. "But I personally feel we have a much better sense for how this ought to be done."

Last week, Wright said Bonneville is making deep cuts throughout the agency to close its projected gap between revenue and expenditures.

Spending on fish and wildlife would not be immune.

While the power council agreed to recommend cutbacks, its eight members also made it clear they expect Bonneville to provide clearer accounting of costs and a firm commitment to fish and wildlife in the future.

"It's not something you can turn off and on like a light switch," Cassidy said.

Two years ago, the federal government committed itself to restoring 12 imperiled stocks of Columbia basin salmon and steelhead without breaching four dams on the lower Snake River in Eastern Washington. The so-called "aggressive nonbreach" strategy relied largely on habitat improvement projects funded by Bonneville ratepayers.

Screens for irrigation intake pipes, acquisition of streamside habitat and new fish-friendly culverts are among those projects.

This week tribal groups blasted Bonneville for short-changing imperiled salmon.

Don Sampson, chairman of the Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, pointed out that Bonneville fell into its current financial predicament by overextending itself. When a drought sapped the ability of Northwest dams to generate dirt-cheap electricity last year, Bonneville had to pay exorbitant wholesale costs to keep electricity flowing to Northwest residents as well as the region's energy-intensive aluminum industry.

"Now they're going to balance that on the backs of the fish," Sampson said.

Bonneville expected the power planning council to recommend funding for roughly $139 million in fish and wildlife projects as an annual average, with a range between $109 million and $179 million. Even though this year's budget came in at the high end of that range, Wright decreed that he would hold the line at the anticipated average.

"We're in such a financially fragile position, that we just can't afford to have projects come in over budget," Wright said last week.

Scott Corwin, vice president of the Pacific Northwest Generating Cooperative, a large Bonneville customer, said fish and wildlife projects aren't being singled out. With Bonneville mulling new rate increases to make up its gaping budget shortfall, Corwin said BPA's across-the-board budget cuts make sense.

"Our customers are feeling the impacts of the recent rate increases," Corwin said. "And they may see their rates go up again soon, at a time when the regional economy is struggling."


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