ONE THOUSAND acres of forestland. A new water treatment plant. Cripes, the price of passage through Seattle's Cedar River watershed is awfully expensive, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) has decided. So the BPA, the federal agency that runs the hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River, announced Monday that it has postponed construction of a new power line from Kangley to Echo Lake until it studies routes that would avoid the city's 90,000-acre preserve.
The BPA, which owns most of the power lines that carry power from the Columbia River to cities across the Northwest, says the new line is needed to meet increasing power loads. The agency had hoped to build it alongside an existing line that has spanned the watershed for 30 years, but the city made it clear that it expected the BPA to pay if construction tainted the river and forced Seattle to purify its drinking water. Seattle officials were also asking the BPA to purchase additional acreage to provide a greater buffer for the city's watershed. Now, the agency says it's going to assess more circuitous routes originally rejected because of costly challenges expected from private property owners.
Seattle City Council member Heidi Wills, who chairs the Energy Committee, says the BPA announcement is an admission that the agency didn't take the threat to the city's water supply and biological habitat seriously enough. The BPA's environmental impact study, she points out, didn't even recognize that the Cedar River is Seattle's main source of drinking water. "They had been rushing through too quickly, as if they had already made the decision without fully evaluating its impacts," says Wills.
Spokesperson Ed Mosey says the BPA hasn't gone out gathering ecological data just so it can prove to Seattle that the trip across its watershed is no more harmful to fish and fowl than any other. Instead, the agency is responding to Seattle citizens' demands to examine alternative routes, says Mosey. "We're doing what we were told," he says. He predicts citizens from other areas will be out in force against the alternative routes, just as they were in Seattle, and says politics may determine the final decision more than environmental studies.
The BPA has also announced that by postponing the new line for one year, Seattle is at risk of power outages if severe winter weather strikes. A longer delay could cause power emergencies even in normal conditions, says Mosey.