Our Voice: Keep BPA independent despite hiring problems

One of the keys to our region's economic success is hydropower.

The power generated from 31 dams helps fuel more than 140 utilities in the Northwest.

Our river and dam system makes hydropower abundant and inexpensive. And renewable.

Most of that power -- about three-quarters of the region's electrical grid -- is controlled by the Bonneville Power Administration. Its astute management has allowed our economy to flourish when others fail, drawing energy-dependent industries to the region.

Because of the BPA's success, it is an odd duck of a federal agency. Because the utility is self-supporting, it has an independence that most federal entities can only dream of. And that independence and success have caused tension over the years, with some questioning whether the control and economic rewards should be held in the Northwest or shared at the federal level.

Northwest lawmakers have long resisted any attempts for the federal government to assert control over the BPA. But a recent debacle over hiring practices at the agency has opened the door a crack for critics who say that BPA needs more oversight from the East Coast.

As a result, the Department of Energy has decided to take over the human resources and legal departments at the BPA. That raises concerns that this is just a first step to move all BPA authority to Washington, D.C., and out of the Northwest.

While we believe some changes in the human resources department were in order, given the discriminatory hiring practices disclosed in a federal report, that's no reason to assert total control over an agency that has long been the envy of other regions. The BPA's work has helped the Northwest immensely, and increased federal oversight would likely just muck things up.

"The risk is that regional taxpayers might be asked to fund things that are not a benefit to the region, or fund things that should be federal obligations," said Scott Corwin of the Public Power Council.

Our lawmakers have once again been quick to resist the idea of a takeover of BPA.

"This cannot be used as a Trojan horse to take Bonneville out of our region, to take over its independence," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who also fortuitously happens to be chairman of the Senate Energy Committee. "No one can use the problems at BPA as an excuse to interfere with policy decisions made in the Northwest for the residents of the Northwest."

Hydropower is one of our region's most valuable assets.

But it hasn't always been that way. The BPA was created in the 1930s to bring low-cost electricity to rural lands. The subsequent dams and irrigation systems changed the face of the Columbia Basin and created opportunity for poor land owners.

The development was not without negative consequences, and the BPA and its customers have spent mightily to help reinvigorate salmon runs on the system's rivers. The results are being seen in improved salmon runs in our backyard right now.

The BPA helped change the face of the Northwest for the better in the grand scheme of things. It has 13 million customers, including most people reading this editorial.

Yes, the BPA has some work to do internally with its hiring and human resources practices. That is an important fix. But we have confidence that the BPA can make those improvements itself.

The BPA is a distinctively Northwest utility. These are our rivers creating power to fuel our economy. That electricity rates can be held at a comparatively low cost is a benefit for our region. That salmon runs have been affected is our problem to fix.

The federal government should leave it alone.