Releasing Water Over Dams Means
by Arla Shephard Bull
"I know $3.21 may not be much, but every single dollar matters when you're on a fixed income."
Mason County ratepayers will see a surcharge in their electricity bills this summer as a result of the cost of a federal judge's mandated fish spill over the Columbia and Snake river dams.
For August, Mason County Public Utility District No. 3 customers, which include the majority of electricity ratepayers in Mason County, can expect their bill to rise $1.32.
Bills for the next three months will be comparable, bringing the utility district's total estimated share of the cost to $150,000 this year, said Joel Myer, public information officer for PUD No. 3.
"This is another court-ordered change in how the Columbia River system is managed for fish, hydropower, irrigation, barge navigation and recreation," Myer said. "It's happening more often, without regard to the cost to electricity customers and without adequate scientific review."
Back in April, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to release more water from eight dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers after a ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco upheld federal Judge Michael Simon's decree last year to start the experiment.
Releasing more water from the dams, rather than storing the water or using it for power generation, could improve the survival of juvenile salmon and steelhead, noted the plaintiffs in the case, represented by the National Wildlife Federation's attorney, Todd True of Earthjustice.
The defendants in the case, including the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, concluded that water spilled over dams 24 hours a day during spring juvenile migration results in a loss of $40 million for the Bonneville Power Administration.
Bonneville Power, the federal manager of the dams, sells hydropower to local utility companies and was able to curtail its loss to $10.2 million, but those costs have now been passed on to local utility customers.
Over on Hood Canal, Mason County Public Utility District No. 1 ratepayers will see a one-time surcharge of $3.21 on their July statement, said Kristin Masteller, business services director at PUD No. 1.
"It's unfortunate for our ratepayers that there is this pancaking of rates," Masteller said. "We're already paying 25 to 33 cents of every dollar to fish and wildlife habitat restoration efforts and on top of that, a judge decides that he knows best, and our ratepayers are having to pay that."
The Endangered Species Act requires the Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power and the Bureau of Reclamation to enact the Federal Columbia River Power System Biological Opinion to ensure that their actions will not jeopardize endangered species.
The document, most recently updated in 2014 and due for another update in 2021, sets guidelines protecting fish and wildlife on the Columbia River. The process for creating the manual involves federal agencies, tribes, environmental groups and scientists.
Increasingly, however, environmental groups have lobbied for stricter river management policies and have taken the fight to the courts.
"Court rulings in the past few years have bypassed science in favor of judicial and adversarial opinions," Myer said. "Fisheries experts who understand the science and impacts should be those who are consulted … PUD 3 and its industry partners have been frustrated."
Representatives from both of Mason County's public utility districts have lobbied their congressmen and senators to protect ratepayers from surcharges for the operation of the Columbia River power system.
Congress passed House Resolution 3144 in May to do just that, and the bill now sits at the Senate.
"We are fighting hard on behalf of our ratepayers," Masteller said. "Our legislators listened. It's imperative ratepayers understand what's happening and take action to call their senators. I know $3.21 may not be much, but every single dollar matters when you're on a fixed income."
Low-income seniors and low-income disabled customers at PUD No. 3 will not be charged the spill surcharge, but the smaller PUD No. 1 does not have a low-income discount program.
The spill at the Snake River dams took place April 3 to June 20, while the Columbia River trial occurred April 10 through June 15.
Each of the spills was enacted up to the maximum total dissolved gas levels allowed by state water quality standards, known as gas caps.
Gas caps are intended to protect fish from gas bubble trauma, a disease that can occur in fish exposed to an increased amount of nitrogen and oxygen in water.
Northwest RiverPartners -- a coalition of utility, port, business and farming interests -- reported that some fish sampled had gas bubble trauma symptoms following the extra spill over the Snake and Columbia river dams, but that the extra water did reduce migration time by a few hours.
Hastening juvenile fish migration leaves fish less vulnerable to predators and rising water temperatures caused by global warming, wrote True, the EarthJustice attorney who represented the National Wildlife Federation in the federal court cases, in a blog about the river spills.
"Over time, these and other dams have transformed the Columbia-Snake River system -- once home to one of the greatest salmon runs in the world -- into a death trap," he wrote. "The four remaining species of Snake River salmon all face extinction."
The spill increase is a temporary solution, True continued.
"The single best solution to aid endangered salmon and many other species -- including imperiled southern resident orcas in Puget Sound that depend on the salmon for food -- is removing the four problem dams on the Lower Snake River," he wrote.
Myer noted that when hydropower is removed as an option for Pacific Northwest electricity consumers, not only does that create a loss of revenue (since Bonneville Power will have less power to sell to other regions), but that the people will have to turn to "dirtier" fuel sources.
"When you replace hydropower with market purchases to make up those differences, they most likely will be fossil fuel sources, which have carbon emissions associated with it," he said. "It's a shame that this is not taken into account also."
Myer and others in the utility field expect that courts will require additional spills next year.
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