Note: this article appears in the print edition as a sidebar to another news article, "Changing times force agency to swim upstream."
The Bonneville Power Administration was born out of the Depression. Talk of taming the wild Columbia River and its tributaries began in the 1920s, but Congress and President Franklin Roosevelt didn't authorize the construction of the first dams - the Bonneville and the Grand Coulee - until 1933, when jobs were of more concern than power. As those dams neared completion, Roosevelt created the Bonneville Power Administration to market the electricity the dams would produce.
Today, BPA sells the power from 29 federal dams and one non-federal nuclear power plant. Before it lost a few customers earlier this year, the agency served 181 wholesale power customers, including 124 public utilities and co-operatives, seven investor-owned utilities, 16 industrial firms and seven federal agencies - all told about half of all the power used in the Northwest.
The agency also oversees the nation's largest high-voltage transmission system, which covers 300,000 square miles and includes 40,000 steel towers and 76,000 wood poles.
Amid concerns over declining fish stocks and energy shortages, Congress expanded BPA's mission in 1980. The Northwest Power and Planning Act told BPA how to obtain additional power, mandating that it pursue conservation and renewable resources, before considering other sources, such as coal. It also created a subsidy program for investor-owned utilities, allowing their customers to receive power at rates comparable to those paid by public utility customers.
The Northwest Act also called on the BPA to make amends for the fish and wildlife killed by the federal dams. The agency has spent hundreds of millions of dollars since, on fish screens and ladders and a barging program that transports salmon smolts around the dams on their journey to the ocean. But the runs continue to decline.