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Those For and Against Reduced Spill
Make Their Case

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - March 5, 2004

Tribal members, union workers, farmers, environmentalists and others this week used a spotlight provided by Oregon legislators to make impassioned pleas for and against proposals to reduce or eliminate summer spill for salmon in the Columbia-Snake river federal hydrosystem.

The Monday hearing called by the Oregon House's Interim Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommitee on Water drew a throng despite the fact that any decision on spill changes would be made in a federal forum. Water "spilled" at hydro projects is generally considered the most benign route of passage, but water that is spilled cannot be used to generate electricity.

The top regional executives for the Bonneville Power Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, NOAA Fisheries and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are considering changing the July/August spill operations from what is prescribed in a NOAA Fisheries biological opinion. The Corps, which operates the four dams that spill in summer, would make the final decision.

The goal would be to reduce spill, which is intended to aid fish passage, by some measure and implement other actions that provide salmon survival benefits equal to or greater than that lost because of the spill reduction. Research, monitoring and evaluation would be a part of the final package.

BPA officials have stressed that the financial benefits would be great, and the biological risks relatively small. The federal power marketing agency's Greg Delwiche told the subcommittee that in one of the options being considered, the spill reduction's annual biological impact would be 10 adult fish (out of a total return of 2,500) that are listed under the Endangered Species Act -- Snake River fall chinook.

The total loss to the total fall chinook run would be 8,000 fish under option C out of a total run of 400,000 fall chinook. And by channeling that unspilled water through turbines, the agency feels can produce and sell surplus power work $51 million ($31 million to $61 million depending on water and market conditions in any particular year.

"These numbers should not be taken as absolutes," BPA's Greg Delwiche stressed. The estimates represent for the most part a midpoint in the range of potential impacts. Option C would involve eliminating spill in both July and August at the Snake River's Ice Harbor Dam, with the valves shut off at The Dalles, John Day and Bonneville dams in August. During July, the survival will be monitored at Bonneville comparing BiOp spill with a reduced spill flow of 50,000 cubic feet per second. The NOAA BiOp described spill strategies that the agencies felt necessary to avoid jeopardizing the survival of listed fish.

Spill reduction proponents say the BiOp operations have limited benefit because most of the migrating juveniles are collected at three other Snake River dams and McNary and barged to a point below Bonneville Dam and released. The vast majority of the annual juvenile outmigration normally has already passed through the system by late July.

The lost revenue opportunity affects many humans, however. Delwiche told the panel that BPA distributes 45 percent of the power consumed in the Northwest through 140 public utilities and 6 investor owned utilities.

"Our rates touch every citizen in the state of Oregon," Delwiche said. The power generation foregone in late summer is particularly expensive because it is likely surplus that can be sold, largely in California and the Southwest, on a high demand, high price market. That surplus revenue is a key ingredient in BPA's menu for keeping its Northwest wholesale rates lower.

Delwiche said that $60 million in revenues generally equates to about $1 per megawatt hour. So implementing Option C has the potential to affect rates by nearly $1 per megawatt hour. Delwiche said current rates are "in the 30s."

The agency is suggesting that a portion of any financial windfall would be used to pay for the "offset" measures implemented to counteract the biological impacts from reduced spill. The balance could be plugged into BPA's costs vs. revenues rate calculations.

Northwest Power and Conservation Council analyst John Fazio told the subcommittee that the spill rate impact is not enough to make or break an industry. But it can affect profitability.

Utility interests and representatives of power consumers say they are already walking a fine financial line after absorbing power rate increases totaling more than 40 percent over the past few years. That makes it hard to compete in a weak Northwest economy.

A "safety net cost recovery adjustment clause" enacted last year because of a weakened BPA financial condition represented a 4 percent increase, Ken Canon, executive director of the Industrial Customers of Northwest Utilities, told the subcommittee.

"That is not inconsequential for the customers here," Canon said. He stressed that the revenue generated as a result of the reduction in spill could help BPA avoid the need to impose the CRAC again.

Weyerhaeuser's Greg Miller told the panel that any rate increase has "an enormous ripple effect" in what is a super competitive wood products industry. He said that the company buys about 3.8 percent of BPA's power resources to drive plants in Oregon and Washington. The lost power from the summer spill represents about $2.8 million in power costs to the company.

"That would help us with our cost competitiveness," Miller said.

Gary McDonough, representing the Associaton of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, says ever-rising power rates "poses further risk to union jobs."

Brian Wolf, a Umatilla County irrigator, said rising pumping costs have forced him to cut back elsewhere, including the elimination of two jobs in his operation. He said he supports effort to sustain healthy salmon runs. But he said federal dam and fisheries must make cost-effective choices -- much as he has to do in his farming operation.

"This is not about killing fish. It's about saving fish and doing it with less money," Wolf said.

The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission's Paul Lumley said the tribes fear that the spill reduction's impacts would be greater than is being portrayed.

"We've estimated about 50,000 fall chinook" adult returns would be lost annually. Lumley said that's about 15 percent of the run based on the recent 10-year average. He also said that the offset actions proposed also fall short of mitigating for potential losses.

"It will have impacts on fisheries all the way up to Alaska," Lumley said.

And pure numbers of fish aren't the only issue. Cutting off spill late in the season cuts off the safest passage route for the later migrating fish. Those fish tend to be larger, and return as bigger, more mature fish. Reducing their survival reduces a valuable component of that stock.

"You can't offset a genetic impact," Lumley said.

Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association executive director Liz Hamilton told the subcommittee that the looming spill decision has the potential for strong negative impacts on fish and the economy.

"It can be easy to nibble away at the edge of the fish recovery in the name of 'cost effectiveness.' The reality is that the hydrosystem has already taken most of the fish in exchange for a region full of electrical energy," she said.

"The law requires a balance between electricity and fish," Hamilton said. "This balance is tenuous at best and is being further undercut by this proposal." She said that analysis done by the region's fish managers indicates that the benefits of the offsets are overestimated and the survival impacts of reduced spill underestimated in the federal analysis.

"It is the agency/tribal fish managers' analysis that we trust, not BPA's," Hamilton said. "Spill is one of the most certain measures in the BiOp. Why would anyone trade certainty for uncertain substitutions? This is a terrible time to undermine one of the most dependable measures in the BiOp for a proportionally small percentage improvement in BPA finances."

She said her organization represents businesses that provide some 36,000 family wage jobs and that sport fishing expenditures have a tremendous economic ripple effect in communities across the Northwest.

"We ask that you express support for these jobs," she said.

Nicole Cordan of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition said the federal analyses "lacked scientific credibility."

"We don't think they are the right numbers to be using in making these judgments," Cordan said. Proceeding with the spill reduction would have the effect of putting both the salmon and the federal agencies at greater risk, she said. The aggressive non-breach approach to salmon recovery represented by the BiOp has already been judged inadequate in federal court and further eroding its provisions would be an obvious skirting of the ESA.

"There are significant legal consequences at stake here," Cordan said.

Barry Espenson
Those For and Against Reduced Spill make Their Case
Columbia Basin Bulletin, March 5, 2004

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