Roiling the Waters: Prelude to the Mighty Columbia Conference
In its natural state, the Columbia River had natural cycles of flood and drought. In its developed state, the river has different cycles, one of which is that every so often competition over the river boils over and seems to swamp the river's governing arrangements.
In the past, these boiling points have sometimes been the catalyst for innovation. It happened in the 1950s, when hydropower developers ran out of dam sites in the United States and the Columbia River Treaty, the Pacific Northwest Coordination Agreement, and the Pacific Northwest-Pacific Southwest intertie were engineered to double the river's power generation and flood control capacity. It happened again 20 years ago when the region's utilities were projecting energy deficits, the Hydro-Thermal Power Program had collapsed in a lawyer's paradise of litigation, a civil war over entitlement to Columbia River hydropower was looming, and the salmon declines were pushing management of the Columbia River dams into the courts. In 1980, the region got the Northwest Power Act, the Pacific Salmon Treaty and other remedial programs that for some years looked like a handsome set of tools. Each wave of crisis led to real innovation - a single-owner model for the hydropower system, regional resource development by a federal agency charged with meeting energy demand, least-cost power planning, a four-state council to guide federal energy management and fish and wildlife investments, and international forums to manage hydropower, flood control and salmon harvest.
Maybe it's just us, but we wonder if we are at another boiling point:
In the 1990s, the energy system began a transition to markets and deregulation, and Snake River salmon were listed under the Endangered Species Act. New energy technologies and cheap natural gas rather than central power planning guiding resource development by Bonneville seemed to answer the region's energy needs, although there were still issues over allocation of the river's energy and whether energy markets could reliably meet energy demand. The region engaged in an intense debate over whether breaching dams on the Lower Snake River was the answer to the salmon problem. The National Research Council and the Independent Scientific Group pointed out that salmon declines were caused by the loss of ecological function systemwide, not just in the Snake River and not just in the flattening-out of the Columbia's flow. In 1998, a raft of new ESA listings outside the Snake seemed to confirm that view. By 2000, new salmon strategies emerged from both the federal agencies and the regional Council that aim more at basinwide habitat and tributary stream flow restoration than at further significant changes in mainstem dam passage and hydrosystem operations. By the end of the century, the Columbia River policy landscape bore little resemblance to the world of 1980.
In 2002, it is not clear if we are through the rapids or headed for new ones. The energy industry has been rocked by trading excesses and drought that contributed to a suspension of salmon operations in 2001. But aren't the solutions to the energy market problems likely to be national or at least west-wide, rather than regional? And aren't salmon returns up rather than down? The Endangered Species Act-driven regulatory process for Columbia River operations may have mooted regional processes for river management, at least for now. But is the federal program really congruent with regional thinking -- and with what it would take to restore abundant fish populations? And isn't the ESA program up for grabs anyway in the wake of Judge Hogan's ruling in the Alsea Valley Alliance case? Regional utilities have proposed 20-year contracts that would transfer from Bonneville to the utilities much of the responsibility for providing electricity to meet load growth. How would this arrangement account for public values in energy conservation and development, and how would it affect salmon policy? Do these developments promise new stability, or are they the opening shots in an intense new debate over public and private values in species and energy conservation and development -- and the legal and institutional arrangements to express those values?
"The Mighty Columbia" conference is aimed at two objectives. One is to deliver a well-rounded update on the political, administrative and legal processes that are dealing with these developments. Where is the energy debate headed? Are the federal and regional habitat strategies for salmon being implemented? How will the federal strategy fare in court? Is the ESA program likely to retain its current shape, or are there surprises in store? There is a lot going on, it is important, and a pulse-checking exercise to see what is happening is time well spent.
But the conference should also shed some light on several larger institutional questions:
- Are the institutional innovations of 20 years ago out of date? Should the coffin be firmly nailed over the idea that the federal government should meet energy demand? Do regional energy and fish and wildlife planning still have an important role to play? If so, isn't that role quite different than defined in the current set of legal arrangements?
- If the current tools really are kaput, is that a problem? Is the market capable of responding to energy needs consistent with public values? Is transferring responsibility for supplying energy from Bonneville to the utilities a good way to hedge market risk? Is the status quo for managing the Columbia River dams and investing federal money for energy and salmon needs good enough? How should we value the public aspect of the regional process as opposed to its legal assignments and personnel?
- Is there a new wave of institutional innovation coming? How might it look? Who will be the players that craft those innovations and what interests and values will they serve?
We don't expect that the conference will address all these institutional questions directly. It will, however, bring together an extraordinary collection of people from the institutions that run the river, who are in the middle of the developments that are driving the debate, and who may be instrumental in finding answers.
The Mighty Columbia conference will be September 12 and 13, 2002, at the World Trade Center in Portland, Oregon. For more information, including a list of speakers and their topics, please go to http://www.theseminargroup.net/htmls/seminars/02rivor/index.htm or call The Seminar Group at 1-800-574-4852.