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Fishy Politics

Utility regulators face fishing-or-farmers decision.

BY NIGEL JAQUISS | njaquiss at wweek.com
State utility regulators will decide this week whether to kill an electricity-rate subsidy for Klamath Basin farmers that critics say is a factor in the recent closure of Oregon's commercial salmon fishery.

The state Public Utility Commission must choose between Klamath farmers, who say they deserve cheap energy, and commercial fishing interests who are still reeling after the feds closed most of 700 miles in coastal salmon habitat because of a sharp decline in Klamath River salmon stock.

Glen Spain, Northwest regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, calls this month's closure by the feds the "worst" ever for West Coast fisheries. Spain estimates it will cost fisheries as much as $150 million.

But at the same time, the three-member state utility commission will consider renewing an 89-year-old contract between Portland-based PacifiCorp and Klamath farmers that expires April 16.

PacifiCorp provides power from dams on the Klamath to about 2,500 farmers at less than 10 percent of the rate farmers elsewhere pay PacifiCorp. Spain argues that providing a cut rate to Klamath farmers worsens the underlying salmon problems by letting farmers get off too cheaply for water use.

Spain says two irrigation-related issues have contributed to decimate the Klamath salmon run: sluggish flow and the creation of slack, warm water behind dams, where toxic algae and salmon-infesting parasites flourish.

"A heavily subsidized power system promotes water waste when we need every drop," Spain says.

The current annual value of the subsidy totals about $10 million, according to documents PacifiCorp has submitted to the PUC.

At commission hearings, the utility, fisheries advocates and conservation groups such as WaterWatch and Oregon Natural Resources Council all have argued that the subsidy must end.

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