The undercurrents at play in the Columbia River dams debate

The undercurrents at play in the Columbia River dams debate

Shortchanging the fish

In 2018, the same year salmon declines were triggering federal alarm bells, Bonneville adopted a new strategic plan meant to fix its finances. It aimed to keep the agency’s fish and wildlife spending from exceeding the rate of inflation; in some years, this spending didn’t end up growing at all. Electricity markets also improved; the agency sold surplus power during times of peak demand like summer heat waves. And it kept expenses low.

Since then, Bonneville’s net revenues have soared past agency targets. Last year, the agency’s net revenues were $360 million above its target. Halfway through 2022, it was on pace for an even better year.

“For the past four years, we’ve done fairly well financially,” Johnson, the Bonneville spokesperson, said. “Five, six, seven years ago, our detractors were talking about the potential for us to go bankrupt because we had so much debt and we were doing so poorly financially. This found solid footing that we have financially is a recent development for us.”

The agency used the unexpected revenues to shore up its cash reserves and lower rates for customers. It didn’t put any of the windfall toward fish and wildlife programs.

In fact, after adjusting for inflation, Bonneville’s current two-year budget for fish and wildlife is down more than $78 million from what it was in 2016-17, before the agency adopted its new strategic plan. That came at a time when scientists said significantly more investment has been needed to give salmon a chance as the climate warms.

“Simply put,” Andrew Missel, attorney for the Idaho Conservation League, wrote in a 2021 brief to Bonneville about its budget process, “in the face of declining salmon and steelhead runs, BPA has decided to starve mitigation projects of needed funds, and has failed to even consider using an expected boon in revenue to help shore up those projects.”

After fish and wildlife agencies told Bonneville its budgets were compromising their efforts, Bonneville announced in June it would increase fish and wildlife spending by about 8% in 2024 based on its assessments of what the program needed to remain viable. That increase would still put it below inflation-adjusted spending levels prior to 2018.

Jeremy Takala, a biologist and member of the Yakama Nation Tribal Council, said the tribe has shovel-ready salmon habitat restoration projects waiting for funding.

“It’s really frustrating,” Takala said in a July speech at a save-the-salmon rally in Portland. “BPA basically managing our funding source, it just does not make sense. It’s a really, really huge conflict that frustrates the tribes.”

Bonneville and its spending have factored heavily into negotiations between salmon advocates and the Biden administration.

Jim McKenna, an adviser to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown who is involved in the negotiations, said Oregon tribes and salmon advocates are asking the administration to greatly increase funding for fish hatcheries and habitat restoration, and to put tribes and other local fish and wildlife biologists directly in charge of how to spend the money .

“The bucket of money is woefully inadequate,” McKenna said. “And, Bonneville is not the agency that should be managing those funds.”

Ultimately, that funding is paramount to whether the government will honor the treatysigned over 150 years ago, that assured the Yakama tribe of its right to take fish where they always had “at all usual and accustomed places.”

Bill Bosch, who has spent decades working for the Yakama Nation’s fisheries program, said the federal government must fully fund tribes’ hatcheries and habitat efforts, unless it intends to spend the money itself on removing dams and restoring the natural river.

“If you’re not willing to fund one or the other of those,” Bosch said, “then are you basically saying you’re going to abrogate the treaty?”