Thirst for power. Dam spills to generate more electricity this winter may threaten salmon runs in the spring.

Energy Woes Threaten Salmon

A dry winter combined with a power shortage could be bad news for endangered salmon in the Pacific Northwest. Last week, California's energy crisis forced the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), the region's energy supplier, to exceed federal guidelines for the release of water through its turbines. With reservoirs already low, the utility might not have enough water available this spring and summer to help juvenile salmon on their run to the sea.

In normal years, BPA buys power from California suppliers during the cold winter months, when demand peaks in the Northwest, and sells it back to California in the summer, when demand peaks there. This year, however, California hasn't had a megawatt to spare. What's more, because of low rainfall and smaller than normal mountain snowpacks, BPA's system of 29 federal dams has been able to generate only about 80% as much power as usual. The agency has been forced to buy the other 20% at market rates, at up to 10 times the usual price, putting a big dent in reserves earmarked for repaying its federal mortgage. Says BPA spokesperson Dulcy Mahar: "The stability of BPA is at risk."

Given the precarious financial situation, the agency has no choice but to release extra water, says Mahar. BPA is required to supply power to its customers. In this case, releasing extra water was the cheapest way to do it. "We are seeking to appropriately balance the needs of fish and electricity consumers during a serious drought," says acting BPA administrator Steve Wright.

Environmentalists disagree. "What we see time and time again is that when the going gets tough, fish take it on the chin," says Rob Masonis, who heads northwest conservation efforts at American Rivers in Seattle. "That's untenable and irresponsible," he says. "We need a real commitment to salmon recovery in the region, not just a few museum fish in the river."

Related sites

Bonneville Power Administration

American Rivers