BPA scapegoats fish to protect fat cats

  • Cartoon of fish coming through wall socket

    Jeff Brown
 

The Bonneville Power Administration says it can't afford to save Columbia River salmon anymore. The eight senators in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana agree. They have asked governors in their states to help write a new law effectively capping the BPA's fish costs.

Not that the BPA's fish programs have worked. Numerous runs have gone extinct under the BPA, most recently coho in the Snake, with sockeye as good as gone. Before the BPA came to be, Snake River chinook were among the greatest salmon runs in the world. They, too, have just about been finished off.

Nonetheless, BPA Administrator Randy Hardy says salmon costs are killing his agency. The senators' plan would link fish costs to the BPA's gross receipts. It also would create a new fish planning authority with greater power than the existing Northwest Power Planning Council.

There are deeply troubling questions about the BPA bailout bill. It would waive all laws requiring the restoration of Snake River salmon and steelhead, as long as "a certain pot of money is spent on fish and wildlife in the region, no matter how it is spent," says Charles Ray of Idaho Rivers United. I believe any BPA rescue plan that tramples salmon is simply immoral. Salmon are a metaphor for the Northwest's rich natural heritage; the BPA is a metaphor for reckless resource management. Imagine a future without salmon; imagine a future without the BPA. Which would you choose?

Even more grotesque is the manner in which the BPA spends its money. It gives over a billion dollars a year to pay nuclear power debt in Washington state and subsidies to the aluminum industry and corporate agriculture. The BPA's Hardy is not talking about capping these costs. Instead, he is proposing to protect and in some ways expand these forms of corporate welfare. At the same time, he wants to raise rates paid by people served by Puget Power, Portland General Electric and Pacific Power & Light.

Interestingly, the agriculture subsidies total about $345 million a year, just about the yearly cost of salmon recovery, according to a revealing new study by the Columbia Basin Institute, a small nonprofit based in Portland. The problem at BPA, according to institute director Bill Bean, has less to do with spiraling fish costs than with the way it has mismanaged water.

Consider, for example, the 500,000 acres of farmland in eastern Washington that is irrigated from water pumped uphill from a reservoir behind Grand Coulee Dam. Decades ago, taxpayers built the dam, canals and pumps. Each year, the BPA pays $25 million to pump that water, a direct subsidy to the irrigators. The cost is passed along to all ratepayers. The irrigators use the water on their fields but not only on their fields. They also send it through a series of seven small hydro projects (built in the 1980s with tax-exempt financing - another subsidy). Irrigators resell the power at a profit in the range of $10 million a year.

What does the government get for this water? About 1/30 of the market price. And some farmers don't even pay for all they get. Unauthorized water is spread to an estimated 50,000 acres in the area, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

There's more. In 1986, when the small hydro projects began producing power, the irrigators increased their take of Columbia River water by nearly 400,000 acre-feet of water per year. This increase did not accompany any increase in the number of acres farmed. Instead, it correlated with the irrigators' entry into the hydropower business.

The diversion results in less water flowing through the BPA's hydro generators at Grand Coulee and other publicly owned dams downstream. This, in turn, means less revenue for the BPA's bank accounts and means less money available for saving salmon. Do the irrigators reimburse the public for its losses? Not at all.

How much money are we talking about here? According to Bean, about $100 million. And that's just in eastern Washington. In total, irrigation withdrawals in the Northwest reduce BPA's revenues by $250 million a year, according to a 1993 study by BPA economists. That study, however, was quietly shelved.

We're not done yet. BPA also is obliged to repay the irrigators' debt for capital construction of irrigation projects to the tune of about $30 million a year, starting in 1997 and continuing into the 22nd century.

Who benefits? We're not talking about just small family farms. The major cash crop on these irrigated lands happens to be potatoes. The potato crops are all spoken for under leases to Simplot, Nestlé and ConAgra. In effect, Bean says, the BPA is subsidizing french fries served at McDonald's.

This is what the fight over the "Fish Cap" is all about. The BPA's main concerns are preserving corporate welfare as well as its own sorry back end.

Ed Chaney, the long-time warrior for Idaho salmon, often points out that corporate interests using the Columbia are wallowing so deep in the public trough they'll never get pushed out.

It's time to get rid of the trough. A new system for managing the Columbia, and sensible priorities for spending money, are badly needed. Can the Northwest live without the Bonneville Power Administration? Absolutely yes. The government can sell the BPA, its dams and transmission systems to private industry. It should do it to reduce the federal debt.

What about the salmon? Congress should require whoever buys the BPA's parts to make annual payments into a salmon-recovery fund, manage the river for safe salmon passage, and invest in energy-efficient and renewable resources. Salmon would fare far better under a privatized system supervised by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission than they have under the BPA's plan for full-blown extinction. And what private business would subsidize the business enterprises of the likes of J.R. Simplot, one of the West's richest men?

Imagine no more subsidies. Imagine no more BPA. To quote John Lennon, it's easy if you try.

Paul Koberstein is the publisher of the monthly Cascadia Times, where this essay first appeared.

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