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Eli Francovich
Columbia Insight

The early 2000s weren’t good years to be a fish—or a ratepayer—in the Columbia River Basin.

That’s because in 2001, the Columbia River’s famed spring runoff sputtered, sending tremors through the ecosystems and infrastructures that depend upon it rolling on.

A predicted 68 percent decrease in spring runoff throughout the Basin sent rates skyrocketing, a particularly disturbing development for a region of the United States that’s traditionally enjoyed low power rates thanks to an extensive network of hydroelectric projects and government subsidies.

Federal and state officials scrambled to deal with the crisis, which was caused in part by the near-record low runoff and in part by a decade-long slowdown of non-hydro power construction.

To address the squeeze, at least in the short term, dam managers decided to sacrifice the quietest, least vocal constituents: salmon.

Salmon-saving measures were paused, and reservoirs were emptied in hopes of avoiding rolling blackouts throughout the Northwest.

While environmentalists and other salmon-lovers protested, none were more concerned than regional Tribes.

“Salmon did not create the current crisis, and the river cannot continue to be run on their backs,” said Antone Minthorn chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation at a 2001 energy conference in Portland.

The salmon, and ratepayers, weathered the crisis.

But tribes didn’t forget. In 2003, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission released its first “Energy Vision for the Columbia Basin.”

The document provided recommendations to utilities, politicians and federal hydropower managers in hopes of preventing the river from running on the backs of salmon again.

Report sees ‘writing on the wall’

After a soft launch this summer, CRITFC has now released a new Energy Vision for the Columbia River Basin that includes 43 recommendations, which were reviewed by 30 subject matter experts.

It’s a timely document considering the global push toward more renewable power sources, as well as an ongoing drought in the western United States and decreasing snowpack due to climate change.

These factors imperil the hydroelectric system and, by extension, salmon, says CRITFC spokesperson Jeremy FiveCrows, who is a Nez Perce tribal citizen. (FiveCrows is also a Columbia Insight board member.)

CRITFC was formed in 1977 and includes the four tribes with treaty fishing rights on the Columbia River: the Nez Perce Tribe, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation and Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Indian Nation.

“This one (report) was precipitated by seeing the writing on the wall,” says FiveCrows. “Of seeing the energy transition and what that’s doing to the whole energy market.”

In particular, the tribes worry that as more renewable energy sources like wind and solar come online the existing hydropower system will be used as energy storage.

Solar and wind power only work when the wind blows or the sun shines. By closing dam gates, power managers can essentially store energy. In power parlance this is known as capacity.

A lack of capacity is one of the problems with renewable energy sources, a fact illustrated by California’s ongoing power woes.

As of yet there’s no reliable and cheap way to store power created by the wind or sun. As terrible as dams and reservoirs are for fish and riparian areas, they’re excellent at storing energy.

“With all this solar and wind coming online the hydro system is being looked at as a battery,” says Christine Golightly, a policy analyst at CRITFC who worked on the Energy Vision document. “Physically it can be used as a battery. It would be a great resource to store energy when solar is running … but all of this is to the detriment of the fish.

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“We need a larger strategy that doesn’t rely on the hydro system as the battery.”

Key recommendations

The report’s 43 recommendations fall into nine major categories. The recommendations are expansive, covering more obscure concerns—a request that utilities deny service for crypto-mining operations—to better publicized and more hot-topic issues. Large items include:

River restoration and changes to dam operation: The tribes recommend the region prepare to breach the four lower Snake River dams. Additionally, they recommend increasing spillover run of river dams during the spring to help salmon and lamprey migration, improving existing fish passage structures and more.

Amend the Columbia River Treaty: The United States and Canada should include the 15 tribal sovereigns in the U.S. portion of the Columbia River Basin in negotiations to modernize the Columbia River Treaty.

The treaty should aim to restore and maintain healthy and harvestable treaty-protected resources while attempting to reduce carbon emissions and improve renewable resource integration.

Flood-risk study: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should conduct a comprehensive study of flood risk in the Columbia River Basin and consider the need to balance flood-risk mitigation with effects on fish, wildlife and ecosystems.

Maximize energy efficiency: The tribes recommend the Northwest Power Council, BPA and utilities study and consider how much power capacity is conserved by implementing energy efficiency efforts, particularly during peak power times. These include better insulation, longer-lasting light bulbs and more.

Address climate change: Reduce greenhouse gas pollution and continue to increase energy efficiency to try to avoid the devastating effects we are facing.

Read all recommendations and the entire Energy Vision for the Columbia River Basin here.

Toward consensus

Golightly says the recommendations are a framework to help guide policy and practice over the coming years.

Now that its Energy Vision is published, CRITFC will be reaching out to politicians, utilities and others. At the same time, the Tribes have received a federal assistance grant to begin studying how the recommendations can be implemented.

CRITFC’s goal is to look at the energy system—and the Columbia River—holistically.

A key part of that is working with groups or individuals who may have differing opinions.

That’s why including a recommendation to breach the four lower Snake River dams was tricky—however the Tribes feel strongly about the importance of that issue.

Still, Golightly emphasizes that it’s an “energy document, not a breaching document.”

One group that doesn’t agree with breaching—but is broadly supportive of the Energy Vision—is Northwest RiverPartners, a hydroelectric power advocacy group based in Vancouver, Wash.

“Northwest RiverPartners provided input into CRITFC’s Tribal Energy Vision,” said Kurt Miller, executive director of RiverPartners, in an email. “While we disagree with the suggestion to breach the lower Snake River dams, we agree it is important for policymakers to be thinking about how all of the pieces fit together.

“We are heartened by the fact that Senator Murray and Governor Inslee’s formal recommendations recognize the critical need for the lower Snake River dams, given existing technologies and decarbonization laws.”

Either way, the Tribes hope their document will help create economically, and ecologically, sound policy in the coming decades.

“We are in unprecedented times in terms of the climate,” says FiveCrows. “It will require constant fine tuning.”

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Eli Francovich is a journalist covering conservation and recreation. Based in eastern Washington he’s writing a book about the return of wolves to the western United States.

This article was published in AP Storyshare.