Climate change and the Power Council

Fish and Wildlife Committee members meet with Council staff, January 8, 2014

Should the Council lead the development of a regional strategic plan to address the potential impacts of climate change on fish and wildlife and the regional power system, which relies heavily on hydroelectricity? Or, should the Council stay on the sidelines and let other government agencies with specific responsibility for hydropower, fish, and wildlife take the lead?

The answer may be somewhere in the middle, based on a discussion this week by the Council’s Fish and Wildlife Committee. Meeting in Portland for several days, the committee, with one member from each Northwest state, is working on ideas to bring to the full Council for a revision of the Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program. The Council revises the program every five years. The current program dates to 2009, and the Council anticipates releasing a draft 2014 Program for public review and comment this spring.

This week the committee is continuing a series of meetings that began in December to review recommendations the Council received last fall to amend the program and to begin working on language for the new program. Climate change is one of the major issues the Council will address. It’s important because the potential for either a drier and warmer climate or a wetter and warmer climate -- warmer, in any regard -- portends changes in river flows, annual snowpack, and runoff that could impact fish and wildlife species and habitat that the fish and wildlife program aims to protect.

Committee members were split on the Council’s future role regarding climate change, but a middle ground was visible. On one hand, the Council should strictly follow its legal responsibility to mitigate impacts of Columbia River dams and leave the climate-change response to the federal agencies that operate the dams, market their hydropower, and protect fish and wildlife including endangered species. An alternative, and not necessarily contradictory future role is for the Council to encourage action by the appropriate government agencies, such as construction of additional water storage in the basin, and adopt strategies in the fish and wildlife program to increase protection in the future through, for example, the designation of “strongholds” for fish and wildlife in existing high-quality habitats.

“It’s easy to say somebody else ought to worry about this, but who?,” said Washington member and committee Chair Phil Rockefeller. “If not the council, who will do that? If we are not capable, part of our leadership role is to assemble people who are -- stakeholders and action agencies. The way we get things done in this basin is through the collaborative process. I don’t think we are in the position to do a comprehensive strategic plan for climate change, but we have an opportunity to work on this if we choose to do so.”