WATER

House Republicans lament cost of fish protections to Western consumers

The chairman of the House Water and Power Subcommittee yesterday said he was concerned that environmental protections for fish are driving up the cost of electricity in the West and siphoning water needed for farmland.

California Rep. Tom McClintock (R) said environmental regulations and water-use restrictions have increased costs to the federal agencies that purchase and market wholesale hydropower in the West, resulting in higher energy prices for residents and businesses.

McClintock said the federal government should take a cue from the 1940s, when an abundance of cheap hydropower fueled "explosive" economic growth and laid the foundation for booming population growth in the West.

"The objective of providing abundance has been replaced by a mentality of rationing shortages and imposing wildly expensive mandates," McClintock said. "Litigation, regulation, federal judges turned river-masters, and mission creep are reducing project output and slamming consumers when our economy can least afford it."

McClintock's comments came during a hearing on the four power administrations -- independent companies within the Department of Energy -- that market wholesale electricity mainly from federal hydropower projects for the West, Southeast, Southwest and Northwest.

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While yesterday's hearing focused largely on the need to upgrade aging transmission systems while integrating an increasing amount of renewable energy, Western Republicans on the panel repeatedly asked the agencies what it was costing to implement Endangered Species Act protections that have forced water diversions to sustain imperiled fish.

Steve Wright, administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration, said that over the past 20 years his agency has reduced output of federal hydropower by about 1,000 megawatts as a result of protections to restore threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead.

Wright added that the agency is awaiting an "extremely important" federal district court decision regarding a joint federal-state-tribal plan for salmon restoration in the Pacific Northwest, and that rejection of the plan could spell uncertainty for power users.

"A decision supporting the plan would solidify a remarkably successful collaboration that is producing results on the ground and avoid a reset button that would likely result in uncertainty, if not turmoil," Wright said.

Freshman Rep. Scott Tipton (R-Colo.) asked the witnesses if the federal government proposes to flood the Glen Canyon Dam, and if it does, what cost will be passed on to energy users.

Timothy Meeks, administrator of the Western Area Power Administration, said debate is still ongoing over whether to flood the dam, but that such a move would likely cost $30 million. Earlier steps to address environmental concerns at the dam have cost the facility roughly a third of its generation, or about 400 megawatts, he added.

McClintock said he was concerned that $3 out of every $10 from ratepayers in the Pacific Northwest -- more than $800 million -- are spent restoring salmon habitat. While salmon numbers could be boosted more cost-effectively through the use of fish hatcheries, existing rules do not allow such fish to be included in population counts, he said.

"Suppose the policy were changed to allow for products of fish hatcheries to be included in population counts" and also to be used in mitigation, McClintock asked. "Will that increase or decrease our costs?"

Two of the panelists agreed such a move would decrease costs to power users significantly, but that such a decision was best left up to biologists who understand the value of a natural salmon population.

Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the subcommittee, suggested the administrators also consider studying the economic impact salmon offer tribes in the form of fishing and tourism.

In contrast to Republicans on the subcommittee, Napolitano praised the power agencies' ability to balance environmental concerns with the need for reliable and affordable power.

"The power marketing administrations are doing well," Napolitano said in a statement after the hearing. "They have been partners with cities, tribes, and customers in meeting environmental protections. They have made repairs to outdated infrastructure and added new capacity to convey renewable energy. They have met these standards and have still been able to provide our cities with inexpensive power and cover their own costs."

The president's fiscal 2012 budget requested $86 million for the power marketing administrations, a decrease from the $150 million distributed in 2010. The funding is slated for grid modernization projects, investment in smart-grid technologies and a new "energy innovation hub" to focus on grid technologies (E&E Daily, March 14).

McClintock earlier this month voiced his concerns about affordable electricity and abundant water to the commissioner of the Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation, which operates most of the large dams in the West (E&E Daily, March 3).

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