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Slow learners

carlson

Once again inhabitants of the pacific northwest’s Columbia River basin are being put through an “examine your belly button” exercise regarding the future of the four Lower Snake River dams and their adverse impact upon migrating salmon and steelhead.

This is the fourth time a Federal District judge has ordered the Bonneville Power Administration, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation; and, NOAA Fisheries to go back to the drawing board.

The flaw the court finds is the inadequacy of the agencies examination of the “remove the four dams” option. A team from those agencies spends years and millions of dollars developing a “BIOP” or the biological opinion on operation of the dams and the consequent environmental impact.

When the judge agrees with plaintiffs, again, almost always lead by a contingent of fish and wildlife adherents, such as Save Our Salmon and the National Wildlife Federation, he finds the biological opinion to be insufficient. This time, though, the judge added a twist saying the EIS also had to be redone because the previous one, started in the 90’s was clearly outdated.

Federal agencies have become “sophisticated” about public input to the process required by law. Rather than hold a formal hearing they have adopted the “information session” model. One is told that for several hours an “open house” will be held and the public is invited to see static displays. Unfortunately, these displays seldom say one word about why an EIS is underway nor is there any admission regarding their defeat in the court.

This column has two recommendations to the agencies:

(1) Expand the BIOP and EIS task force by providing a seat at the table to Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service and to the EPA. It is a no brainer that adding the agencies which have expertise in environmental law will ensure a better more complete analysis. To date they have been excluded.

(2) Have a section that examines options for paying for dam removal if ordered by the court. An often heard refrain is even if a court orders the four dams breached Congress will never appropriate the funds. That’s probably correct. Are there other ways to obtain the funding? Yes.

Congress passes legislation that mandates the BPA to accelerate the pay-off of the Federal debt it owes to the Treasury for the construction costs of the Federal Base System (the dams). The legislation mandates the FBS be sold to the four northwest states for a reasonable price. The four states reincorporate BPA with the Northwest Power Planning Council becoming the board of directors. The new entity is to work out a lease agreement with the Army Corps and the Bureau of Reclamation to continue operating the dams with the excess revenue from power sales beyond standard costs of operation and maintenance for the dams and upgrades on transmission lines being distributed to the four states on the basis of population.

This could bring new revenue to these states in the billions of dollars. It would facilitate investing in new infrastructure and help cover the costs of the states’expanding needs without any new tax increases. A small portion of the excess revenue would be diverted to a fund that would be drawn upon to pay for breaching the dams.

Far-fetched? Not really. BPA’s outstanding debt right now is $15.2 billion. Last year, BPA made a higher than average payment to the Treasury of $1.9 billion. In earlier years payment on principal and interest had been approximately $1 billion, but over the last three years BPA has made higher than average payments.

The average interest BPA calculates and includes is 5.11%. The $15.2 billion includes both non-federal debt (which has a priority) and the federal debt. On the surface then, accelerating the debt repayment and then selling the system back to the region looks doable. BPA could help the proposed process by renegotiating the interest rate given that home loan mortgage rates are currently hovering around 3%.

BPA could also drop out of its “o and m” costs the massive subsidies that undergird supposed efforts to restore salmon and steelhead fisheries. To some, items like “the Columbia Basin Accords” look like nothing less than legal bribery – payments to fish and wildlife agencies and tribes not to talk about breaching the four lower Snake dams through 2018.

BPA officials will argue that for years they have been operating on a plan which would never have them paying off the debt completely primarily because they do crank so many other costs into the budget and are constantly reinvesting in system upgrades.

More than anything agency chiefs and the region’s political leadership have to recognize where there’s a will there’s a way. For too long too many have just paid lip service to the law’s requirement that the fish runs be restored. Creative thinking has to be undertaken, collective will has to be established and the dams breached. This proposal could be a win/win for all and achieve removal of the four lower Snake dams without using taxpayer money.

Does anyone have a better idea?

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