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NW Fish Flow Programs Too Costly, Some Say

by Mike Lee, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, February 8, 2001

Demands that federal agencies abandon their fish flow program escalated Wednesday with the release of a new report that shows Northwest salmon will demand nearly $2 billion worth of water this year given current heavily inflated power prices.

And that isn't the worst of it. It now appears certain the Northwest can't keep the lights on and keep its commitments to salmon recovery.

"It just keeps getting worse," said Mark Walker, who presented the cost increase report for the Northwest Power Planning Council.

In just a few days, the cost estimate for the annual fish flow program -- in which water is spilled over dams to flush juvenile fish downstream -- has increased because predicted Columbia River flows have diminished.

"It's even more than when I put this together late last week," Walker said.

"It's very clear that the cost of flow augmentation will be extraordinary this year," said Tom Karier, one of Washington's representatives on the Power Planning Council. "It's as much as Bonneville spent in the first 20 years of providing flows for fish."

To make matters worse, Karier said, it now looks like the Bonneville Power Administration's recent estimate of power rate increases of about 60 percent coming this fall "appear to be on the low side."

"It was a day of generally bad news," he said.

Mountain snowpack and reservoir levels this year are similar to 1977, the worst water year on record. That means big trouble for a region heavily dependent on water for large-scale irrigation, power generation and struggling salmon runs.

To protect the fish, the federal "biological opinion" dictates that water should be flushed down the Columbia-Snake system to make rivers run more like they did before the dams created slack water pools. The program has been controversial for years, with opponents saying the National Marine Fisheries Service can show little or no scientific justification for spending all that money on flows.

Summer flows produce "some benefits," Karier said after reviewing the newest NMFS report on flows Wednesday. "But there is very little evidence that other actions like spring augmentation have any benefit."

The NMFS report described a "weak, inconsistent relationship between flows and survival" in the spring.

Flow benefits soon will be put on the ledger next to their costs as regional leaders try to figure out how to prepare for summer.

Even before the revised cost was announced, a regional commerce association was badgering BPA and NMFS to drop the flow program, which traditionally cost about $200 million in lost power generation at Columbia-Snake hydropower plants.

With the cost of fish flows now pegged at $1.9 billion, the Columbia River Alliance said, the region's economic viability and the reliability of its power supply system are at stake. It's renewing its anti-flow campaign based on predicted power shortages starting this month unless the program is changed. Another shortage is expected in July and August.

"Let's revisit this thing," said Bruce Lovelin, executive director of the alliance. "If it's not effective, let's discard it and put our money into other efforts. ... Our region cannot afford this costly and ineffective salmon recovery program."

Karier said federal agencies must consult with the states about where to use increasingly limited water supplies, given the potentially dramatic effects on power supply, reservoir recreation and salmon recovery.

"There is almost no scenario in which the Northwest can keep the lights on and follow the biological opinion," Karier said. "It looks like Bonneville will operate outside the biological opinion -- the question is how far and what parts of it are they going to drop."

Mike Lee
NW Fish Flow Programs Too Costly, Some Say
Tri-City Herald, February 8, 2001

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