Alternatives to Summer Spill
by Shane Scott and John McCulley
The summer effort to aid fish passage runs $77 million,
but state officials don't see proven alternatives
We can save thousands of salmon a year and give Oregon a much-needed economic boost. How? By letting science show us the best way to help salmon.
Everyone agrees we should save Northwest salmon. In fact, the Bonneville Power Administration has spent more than $6 billion over the years on fish programs.
Now, recent studies evaluating one of these programs -- "summer spill" -- tells us that some fish programs work better than others.
Spill started 20 years ago to get fish past dams without going through the dam's turbines. Operators open an underwater "gate" in the dam, pulling fish 30 to 50 feet deeper and propelling them through the dam into the turbulent water on the other side. Some of them die, and many emerge injured and disoriented, vulnerable to predators. In fact, the survival rate for "spilled" salmon is only slightly better than for the fish going through the turbines.
Spill doesn't change the amount of water in the river, it just sends it through a different part of the dam. But because spill redirects water that could have been used to produce electricity, it is the most expensive fish passage method used today -- and the least effective.
For example, summer spill is implemented in July and August on the Snake and lower Columbia rivers to save threatened Fall Chinook. But it saves only 24 adult Chinook each year. Why so few? Because by late summer, 90 percent of those fish have been barged around the dams and are far downstream! Despite that, BPA expects to spend $77 million this year on summer spill -- more than $3 million per fish.
Do we really want to waste that much money? Oregon has the nation's second-highest unemployment rate, and state voters recently made it clear they want to be sure their money is being used wisely.
Spending $77 million to save 24 threatened salmon is not a wise use of money.
There are better ways. Two alternatives identified by Federal experts could increase adult salmon populations by more than 50,000 fish a year for less than $2 million: (1) Expand a program that pays anglers to catch the Northern Pikeminnow, a predator that feeds on young salmon, and (2) expand a program in the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River that protects juvenile salmon from becoming stranded in low water.
It is true that eliminating summer spill could reduce record runs of non-threatened salmon by about 19,000 fish (less than 5 percent), but those fish are harvested anyway! Spending $77 million to save them is like paying $4,000 for a fish you buy in the supermarket.
Adopting alternatives to summer spill will help more fish and allow dams to produce more power, resulting in lower electricity costs for Oregon ratepayers.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will decide on summer spill this spring with input from federal authorities, the BPA and Northwest governors. Adopting these two alternatives to summer spill is better for the salmon and for us.
Shane Scott is a fisheries biologist with the Public Power Council and a former Columbia River Policy Coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. John McCulley is executive secretary of the Agricultural Cooperative Council of Oregon, representing the interests of farmers and agricultural cooperatives.
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