The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) is a federal agency tasked with operating and selling electricity from hydropower dams in the Pacific Northwest including the four lower Snake River dams. BPA sells much of its power through long-term contracts with public electric utilities.These “customer utilities” may be municipal, like Seattle City Light, or electric cooperatives, like Salmon River Electric Cooperative. 

BPA’s current contracts with about 140 customer utilities will expire in 2028. As such, BPA is getting ready to negotiate new contracts. This process is known as the Provider of Choice initiative. At this early stage, BPA is still framing what it expects these contracts to look like, so their planning assumptions are crucial. 

BPA is also tasked with protecting salmon, steelhead, and other fish as they migrate through the system of dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Dams are bad for fish, causing both direct and indirect mortality on juveniles as they migrate downstream to the ocean and on adult fish as they come home. Climate change has worsened these impacts, pushing the fish closer to extinction. To truly reverse this trend and move toward recovery, scientists say we need to breach the four dams on the lower Snake River. In the meantime, we must do everything possible to protect these fish in their migration. 

That brings us back to BPA, which has historically been the Provider of Extinction. BPA operates its dams to maximize power generation, not to safeguard salmon. In the last fifteen years, a series of lawsuits have forced BPA to concede some operations in favor of salmon. This is welcome, but it’s not enough. As climate change worsens and salmon get closer to extinction, BPA must do more in its operations to protect the fish. That means directing more water toward “spill”, pushing fish over the top of the dam. This is safest for fish, but it means less water can be used for energy generation. 

We expect more protective operations to be required in the future, so BPA must plan for that outcome now. As part of Provider of Choice, BPA is evaluating the energy landscape and setting customer expectations for what’s coming over the next twenty years. Reduced energy from federal dams must be part of that plan. 

If BPA plans for these changes in the future, they can get ready now. Thousands of megawatts’ worth of renewable energy projects are in line to be constructed in the Northwest. Billions of dollars are available from the federal government to jumpstart these projects. The Northwest is already overly dependent on hydropower, which is already at risk because of drought and smaller flows. Acquiring new resources to offset current hydroelectric generation is simple, but the process must get started now! 

BPA should plan on a future with less hydropower and more non-hydro renewables. As a federal agency, BPA must be responsive to the needs and priorities of the region. Salmon—an iconic species that forms the foundation of economies, ecosystems, and cultures—are undoubtedly one of those priorities. 

Take action today and submit a public comment on BPA’s Draft Provider of Choice policy, asking for this change. Comments are due by October 13th, so don’t delay! Missed the comment deadline? You can still take action by sending your elected officials an email!