Two cultures, one power grid

Electricity shortage in California refuels an old rivalry: Northwest vs. Golden State.

Ever since the first forty-niner took his sack of gold dust up to the Willamette Valley and bought farmland at inflated prices, there's been a social and cultural rift between California and the Pacific Northwest.

Land-use planning vs. sprawl. Fly fishing vs. speed boats. Laid-back politeness vs. road rage. Polar fleece and hiking boots vs. spandex and body jewelry. That's the image at least, although the reality is far more nuanced and complex.

But for the most part, it's been a story of northwesterners resisting the influx from the south. "Come and visit us again and again," former Oregon Gov. Tom McCall (R) famously said. "But, for heaven's sake, don't come here to live."

These days, the competition focuses on energy, and we don't mean the ginseng kind popularized in the Golden State, but the stuff that comes out the wall and up the wire - the kind Californians these days are running very short of and their neighbors to the north are being asked to share.

Restricted supplies and soaring rates have political leaders and utility execs in California scrambling to find solutions. For the moment, Oregon and Washington have been ordered by the federal government to ship south more hydropower produced in the Columbia River Basin. This has raised regional hackles.

"I think it's outrageous that Oregon would have to conserve just to sell power to California," says Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D), normally a mild-mannered man. "We are really at the risk of having California and its problems drag down the rest of us."

In Denver Wednesday, Western governors met with US Energy Secretary Bill Richardson and federal energy regulators to hash out ways to alleviate what's being called a "crisis" that could affect food prices nationwide, as well as the state's high-tech industry.

So far, there's a consensus that other states in the region need to pitch in. "You can't cut California off. That's not what this is about," says Governor Kitzhaber. "We need to treat the problem, not the symptom."

Still, there's a sense that California needs to do all it can before asking others to sacrifice. "We in the rest of the Western states say, 'OK, if we're going to conserve and if we're going to provide excess power and then we find you in California could have done more, there is going to be resentment,' " says Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer (R).

It's not a simple matter of regulating (or deregulating) energy flow around the region. And in fact, although the Northwest is known for its massive hydropower dams and some of the cheapest electric rates around, exchanges of electricity have always been a two-way street up and down the Pacific Coast states. A mass of transmission lines, called the "intertie" and running from the Columbia River to Los Angeles, joins the sometime-rivals like a necessary umbilical.

In the summer (when California air conditioners are humming), the flow is to the south. In the winter, when California utilities produce more power than they need, the surplus is shipped north to help keep Seattlites warm and dry.

Nor is the Northwest above reproach. Hydropower may be renewable and clean, as critics of nuclear power and coal-fired power plants like to point out. But biologists warn that 50 years of taming the mighty Columbia also is one of the main reasons why the region's icon - Pacific salmon - is facing extinction. Cynics here say they get their electrical power by "burning fish."

Part of the problem with shipping electricity south now is that generating this power sends more water from the Columbia River Basin to the Pacific, leaving less to help migrating salmon when it comes time for them to make their remarkable journey back home to spawn next spring.

In fact, the biggest regional split may be the one between metropolitan centers and more sparsely-populated areas. Southern Oregon and northern California - which have long felt neglected by their state capitals in Salem and Sacramento - for years have half-seriously threatened to carve off the new state of "Jefferson." In Oregon and Washington, voters east of the Cascade Mountains typically are far more conservative than people who live along the I-5 corridor.

Still, it's fun to overemphasize any state-to-state differences in outlook and lifestyle. Sometimes it's just good-natured joshing. Sometimes there's a harder edge, especially when recently transplanted Californians - whose home equity has allowed them to buy a relative mansion up here - argue more strenuously than locals for curbs on hillside development in order to protect "our town."

And sometimes, the competition simply descends into the irrational.

I know an otherwise perfectly reasonable correspondent for an international daily newspaper who always smuggles an apple through the California agricultural inspection station at the Oregon border. Then submits his wife to a pathetic little speech about "How dare they ban our excellent produce when the real export problem is all that trash coming out of Hollywood?" At this point, she - a native Oregonian - usually reminds him that he has lived in California himself. Three times.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.