Letters from the West

The fate of the Northwest’s largest energy provider may decide future of our salmon

More from the series


20 years later, Idaho's salmon are still in danger of disappearing forever

The salmon of the Northwest are the stuff of legends. Pioneers talked of rivers so thick that they were tempted to cross on the backs of the fish. But times have changed, the fish's numbers have plunged, and 13 species were placed on the endangered species list by 1995. Climate change and our network of hydropower dams have helped thwart attempts so far to find a sustainable solution. And it's possible some of our strategies - including our reliance on hatcheries - have backfired.

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When they were first built, Columbia River dams like Grand Coulee and Bonneville were technological wonders that placed the Pacific Northwest on the edge of the future. Millions of acres of farmland were irrigated. The dams fueled the growth of urban areas around Seattle and Portland, and powered reactors at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation that produced the plutonium for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki in World War II.

Salmon and the region’s Indian tribes were a second thought during this period — until the dams took their toll. In 1991, the fish were listed under the Endangered Species Act, forcing the region to face how the dams that powered its growth now threaten the future of its natural wonders, such as the salmon or the Salish Sea orcas.

I spent much of 2017 re-examining what we are doing to protect and recover the salmon and steelhead that are critical to our identity. The most important trend I found was the transition going on in the electric power industry. Digital technology has changed the way we communicate, we shop, we sell and we learn; it is also revolutionizing our utilities.

No one understands this better than Elliot Mainzer, the administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration, the agency Roosevelt created to market power from the Columbia dams. It sells billions of dollars’ worth of electricity every year for use by the 10 million people who live in the Pacific Northwest, with its $820 billion economy.

BPA’s annual 10,000 megawatts of electricity account for 28 percent of all of the power produced in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, parts of California and other states. Yet today, its transmission grid is arguably as important as the dams.

Since 2006, wind power produced along the Columbia has grown from 500 megawatts to more than 3,500 megawatts, enough to power seven cities the size of Seattle. By 2020, wind and solar power in the region could grow to 8,000 megawatts.

Imagine where it will be in 2030.

This renewable power is valuable because states like Washington, Oregon and especially California have laws requiring utilities to provide an increasing amount of renewable energy to help combat climate change. Despite its low carbon, hydroelectric power doesn’t count.

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Elliot Mainzer, Bonneville Power Administration administrator. Rocky Barker rbarker@idahostatesman.com

That presents Mainzer with a problem.

He needs to move BPA through this transition, where its primary role shifts from power production to grid services. The dams become a tool to instantly offset the intermittent nature of wind and solar. And BPA spends more time using customers’ water heaters to absorb power when the wind blows, or improving its forecasting to better manage the power supply and keep its grids reliable.

BPA has to do this in a way that it can sell at a competitive price to public utilities, like in Idaho Falls, and to rural electrical cooperatives.

This is where salmon come in. Under the law, Mainzer has to treat fish and wildlife “equitably” to power production, and that adds to its costs.

That’s why BPA and its ratepayers have spent $16 billion over the last 20 years on salmon programs. Those dollars have kept salmon from going extinct by putting more water in streams, improving habitat, and improving the fish’s survival through the eight dams that now stand between Idaho and the Pacific.

But much of that money was spent as an alternative to removing four dams on the Snake River in Washington, which the Idaho Fish and Game Commission said in 1998 was “the best biological choice for recovery, and the only option that can meet Commission recovery standards.” NOAA Fisheries recently confirmed current measures aren’t enough to put Snake salmon on the road to recovery — especially with climate change.

So really, the money has been spent to preserve those dams. Today, they are actually most important to Idaho wheat farmers, who find the most affordable way to ship their grain is on barges down the Snake and Columbia rivers.

U.S. District Judge Michael Simon ordered BPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to take a serious look at breaching the four dams on the Lower Snake. They are doing an environmental review, not just of the dams, but of the whole system.

But the Corps doesn’t really face the same issues as Mainzer and BPA. It says it will operate the dams until Congress tells it not to. It doesn’t need to adjust to the energy market, or even to cost-benefit reports that increasingly show the four dams cost more than they are worth.

For every dollar taxpayers and ratepayers invest in the four dams, they get back 15 cents, according to Jim Waddell, a retired Army Corps manager who led the last environmental review of the dams in 2002.

If Mainzer can’t offer his customers a competitive rate when BPA updates its contracts in 2028, they will go elsewhere, and his agency could be broken up and sold off the way Republican administrations have proposed since the 1980s. And, if he can’t put salmon on the road to recovery, he and we will have failed future generations.

Mainzer cannot do all this alone. Even if he concludes removing the four Lower Snake dams will benefit BPA and strengthen the region’s economy, he will need to convince Congress to approve the work. He will also have to help make whole all the groups who would be affected, like the wheat farmers.

That might include giving Idaho farmers back the water they currently flush downriver to help carry salmon through the dams. It could instead be put to uses like stabilizing the Snake River Plain Aquifer. (Right now, downstream congressmen led by Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers are pushing to return river management to its status quo as of 2008 — which would keep Idaho’s water running out of state.)

Mainzer and the region will have to be tough to develop a fish plan that also saves money and modernizes BPA and the grid. He should use as his model the late Peter Johnson of McCall, who led BPA through its worst crisis.

Johnson was put in charge of the agency by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 as BPA was embroiled in a multibillion-dollar nuclear construction program, later called “Whoops,” that was careening out of control as its bonds went into default. His difficult decisions to stop construction on two of three plants forced 6,000 people out of work, but kept BPA rates low enough to preserve Pacific Northwest industries, allow BPA to invest billions of dollars to cover the costs of saving endangered salmon, and lay the foundation for the region’s leadership in energy efficiency.

If Mainzer can duplicate Johnson’s wisdom and guts, he can save BPA and salmon. But he’s going to need all our help.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

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