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Customers, 1; fish, 0

A mad scramble to meet Northwest energy demands forces the BPA to make a tough -- and illegal -- call to put salmon protections second
 June 21, 2007 by  MICHAEL MILSTEIN, The Oregonian

The crisis grew clear after midnight when the display in front of Cathy Schaufelberger showed her that power could soon run out for untold numbers of people.

She was halfway through a 12-hour shift April 3 at the Bonneville Power Administration, managing electricity pulsing from Columbia River hydroelectric dams.

Just two choices loomed: Adjust dam turbines to boost power, thrashing and possibly killing federally protected salmon; or cut off people's power just as they turned on heaters and furnaces amid a cold snap.


The BPA, in a series of faulty calculations days earlier, had sold power companies more electricity than it could draw from the dams. And its marketers couldn't buy enough back to cover the shortfall.

Schaufelberger, in urgent phone calls as dawn approached and power demand rose, learned the BPA had no procedure for what to do. So she and co-workers finally made the call -- for people.

"That is, unfortunately, an issue we have been dodging for about five years," supervisor Steve Kerns had told her at 4:21 a.m.

The BPA action violated federal commitments to operate the dams with minimum harm to young fish headed for the ocean.Transcripts of the anxious phone calls emerged recently in a landmark federal court case weighing the fate of threatened Columbia River salmon against the region's rising need for hydroelectric power.

U.S. District Judge James Redden, who is overseeing the case, learned what happened only through an anonymous phone message left at his Portland chambers. He was upset, having already lost patience with repeated federal failures to address the damage dams do to salmon.

"Apparently, BPA's sales commitments to customers always trump its obligation to protect (Endangered Species Act)-listed species," Redden wrote in a stern order afterward. "This was a marketing error and ESA-listed fish paid the price. This, the law does not permit.

"Under the circumstances here, threatened and endangered species must come before power generation," he wrote, ordering that from now on dams be operated with full salmon safeguards and he be notified of any deviations.

He directed the BPA to distribute his order to all employees with duties involving the dams.

The April episode highlights the delicate balance within the region's energy supply, where one miscalculation means either harming salmon or blacking people out. It's a hard reality hidden from a public that depends on power from dams, but all too obvious to the people dealing with it April 3.

Running out of ideas

"I don't have any more rabbits to pull out of the hat," Schaufelberger told supervisor Cindy Hutchison after waking Hutchison up at 3:55 a.m.

A half hour later, Schaufelberger told BPA dispatchers there was no power to buy from other utilities. Coal and natural gas power plants that might otherwise provide backup energy were shut down while their owners used cheap hydropower instead.

"We've tried everything everywhere to purchase and at any price -- no one has anything to sell us," she said.

"I am desperate for generation," Schaufelberger pleaded with an operator at John Day Dam at 4:46 a.m.

The dam operator laughed, according to a transcript.

"If I had more, I'd give it to you," he said. "But I've got no more."

Dams on the Willamette River, in Idaho and even Montana were maxed out on power. Finally the BPA persuaded operators at Bonneville, The Dalles and McNary dams to adjust their turbines to produce more energy -- though it harms fish drawn through them.

They told him the BPA had been selling lots of surplus power as Grand Coulee Dam released extra water to bring lake levels down for fish. But an analyst overestimated the BPA's April 3 power supply and the BPA sold more energy than it would actually generate, officials explained in court documents.

On top of that, colder temperatures suddenly forced power demands higher.

Once BPA marketers realized the problem, they spent $1.1 million buying back power to make up for $382,253 worth of energy they sold earlier, court documents say. But that still wasn't enough.

The BPA did not want to cut off power to utility companies because they might then have to black out customers -- a threat to public health and safety, BPA Vice President Steve Oliver said in a court filing.

So instead, the BPA overrode fish protections for two hours at McNary Dam, four hours at The Dalles and one hour at Bonneville. The move produced about $50,000 worth of extra energy, Oliver wrote.

"What happened April 3 was a rare, unplanned and unexpected event that occurred during a narrow window of time due to a series of unfortunate circumstances," BPA spokesman Michael Hansen said this week. A BPA team is examining how to better handle emergency situations such as the one April 3, he said.

That could involve finding ways to halt power deliveries from dams in critical conditions, he said.

Federal officials said injury to salmon April 3 was likely minimal because few fish move past the dams so early in the season, and many of those go around the turbines, not through them.

Judge unconvinced

But Redden didn't buy it, saying the already "dangerously low rate of returning adult fish" makes each one that much more important.

The judge said there's no reason to think the BPA would have handled the situation differently even if salmon numbers had been at their peak. He cited Oliver's statement that if the BPA did not find extra power to meet its sales obligations, an automatic control system would increase energy output from dams to meet demands.

If fewer salmon were hurt thanks to the season, he wrote, "that result is more likely a product of good fortune rather than reasoned decision-making or planning."

Michael Milstein: 503-294-7689; michaelmilstein@ news.oregonian.com

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