The Endangered Species Act: A Hidden Cost

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Making electricity comes with a lot of costs, but one cost that often goes unnoticed is the cost associated with compliance with the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  But make no mistake, the costs of ESA are very real and are borne by power customers. Many of those customers get their electricity from not-for-profit utilities that receive hydropower from federal dams spread throughout the Southeast, the Missouri River Basin, the Colorado River Basin, and the Columbia River Basin.


Take the Columbia, for example, one of our nation’s mightiest rivers. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conquered its fierce nature through the construction of a series of 11 dams, commencing with the opening of Bonneville Dam in 1937 and concluding with the opening of John Day Dam in 1971. These two dams are part of the 33 hydroelectric projects that comprise the Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS), accounting for 33% of the electricity consumed in the Pacific Northwest.  The power produced from this system is ultimately marketed by another federal entity – the Bonneville Power Administration.


In the depths of Bonneville Dam – located 40 miles to the east of Portland, Oregon – sits an employee of the U.S. Corps of Engineers whose job is to count the different varieties of endangered salmon migrating up and down the Columbia River. This tedious job is required because the salmon have been listed as endangered under the ESA.  Because it is managed as a federal entity, Bonneville Dam must ensure that the operation of its hydroelectric facilite does not jeopardize the continued existence of four species of salmonwithin their habitat of the Columbia River.


To accomplish this task, federal action agencies that oversee plants like Bonneville Dam work within the framework of a biological opinion required under the ESA. A biological opinion (BiOp) is required under the ESA when the  the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) determines that a Federal action – operation of the hydroelectric turbines for power production, for example – will adversely impact the continued existence of an endangered species.  This opinion not only dictates the operation of the power system as a whole, but also includes millions of dollars in mitigation costs to offset the decline of ESA-listed species stemming from the operations of federal dams like Bonneville.


As a result of these tailored hydropower operations and hundreds of science-driven mitigation measures – all funded by customers – fish and wildlife related costs are typically about one-third of the Bonneville Power Administration wholesale power rate (the rate charged to the utilities purchasing power from BPA).


Unfortunately, some of the operation and mitigation costs borne by the Bonneville customers have a dubious record of actually contributing to the recovery of ESA listed species like the four species of salmon in the Columbia. One of those actions with a dubious record has been the Federal court ordered process of “Spill.” Spill is one of several ways to move migrating fish past a dam. Spill moves water from one side of a dam to the other via a dam’s spillway or surface weir (a low dam built across a river to raise the level of water upstream or regulate its flow) instead of through an electric generating turbine.


Spill may seem like an efficient process at getting endangered salmon past the Columbia River dams in order to decrease their mortality rates at the hands of hydroelectric turbines. However, the court-mandated process has been driven by questionable science and has been rather inefficient. For example, the Federal court has ordered Spill to occur during a specific time period when salmon are not migrating downstream. When the Spill occurs, it produces a process called Total Dissolved Gas (TDG). High TDG levels have resulted in migrating salmon getting fish trauma from high gas bubbles – sometimes leading to mortality. In other words, it hurts the salmon instead of helping them.


In many ways, the Endangered Species Act is a good example of a law that has been misused by litigious plaintiff groups to systematically drive down the value of hydropower, a generating resource that is reliable, flexible, and carbon free. Court-ordered Spill currently costs the Northwest ratepayer $40 million a year in foregone power revenue and produces approximately 1,001,743 metric tons of CO2 equivalent.


In many ways, this well-intentioned law is doing more harm than good to customers and species alike. So while we should always maintain a commitment to environmental stewardship, striving to create an environment where hydropower assets and species can co-exist, we should keep our focus on cost-effective, science-based approaches when it comes to species like salmon. All involved deserve no less.