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Enviros Say BPA Could Have Spilled More for Fish

by Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter, December 20, 2001

Agency Disagrees

A coalition of environmental groups has released a report that says BPA could easily have bought more power last summer in order to spill more water over dams to help juvenile fish migrate to sea. But the federal power agency disagrees. It says the report is seriously flawed and such a strategy would have been irresponsible.

"If BPA had given salmon only half the spill this summer that the new federal plan requires, it would have cost an average Seattle home 19 cents a month for a year, or $2.38 total for the year," said Nicole Cordan of the Save Our Wild Salmon coalition. "That spill would have helped migrating fish that really needed help in a terrible drought year," she added, "and we could have afforded it, yet BPA said no."

Facing the second-worst water year on record, BPA declared a power emergency last spring, trimmed load by paying the aluminum industry to shut down, and spilled only about 10 percent of the normal amount of water for fish. More fish were barged out on the Snake and Mid-Columbiaolumbia to compensate for expected reductions in survival of fish that migrated through the slow-moving system.

The Dec. 3 report claims BPA used daily non-firm power prices to calculate the cost to BPA if it had spilled water last spring and summer. However, Robyn MacKay of the agency's power scheduling office said the world doesn't work that way. "The costs of spill would have bankrupted us, plus we'd have no water in the system for this winter," MacKay told NW Fishletter.

She noted that the agency would never have waited until June to buy power to make up for spill, but would have contracted for the juice months earlier if it had been in a position to do so. She said spot prices were prohibitive. In January, for instance, MacKay said BPA spent $50 million for power in a single week. "And typically, when we need power, the price goes up," she added.

The salmon coalition's report included a spreadsheet that tallied up potential BPA costs for the spill program from April through August--a figure that added up to over $534 million, according to the analysis by the Northwest Energy Coalition that was included. But the report focused on potential spill costs for only June through August, which added up to $112 million, noting that power prices declined significantly after last May, when California price caps went into effect. But the June spill would have been too late for most spring chinook, anyway, since the majority of the fish had migrated through the hydro system by then.

However, the report cited fish survival estimates from the Fish Passage Center that focused on spring chinook, which indicated inriver survivals for spring chinook and steelhead in the lower Snake were down by 20 percent and 50 percent, respectively, from the year before. Survival of the Snake chinook to the estuary was down from 50 percent to 30 percent, according to the FPC analysis, and steelhead was far worse, down from 39 percent last year to only 5 percent in 2001. Many steelhead may have simply stopped migrating due to the low flows, with an unknown number hanging tough until next year when they could resume their journey.

The report failed to mention that most of the spring chinook from the Snake, around 90 percent, were barged through the hydro system this year.

"Due to the drought," said the report, "there may not have been enough water available in the river to resume full spill requirements at all times. Or full spill could have come at the expense of storing water for winter reliability of energy supply. But, providing even three-fourths or one-half of the required amount of spill would have significantly helped juvenile salmon."

The coalition's report also mentioned that private dams on the mid-Columbia "were operated in a manner that was extremely harmful to salmon," citing high mortality in the Hanford Reach this year to fall chinook fry, when it was estimated that 1.6 million of them died from stranding from fluctuating flows. (The loss amounts to about 7 percent of this year's Hanford fry production, which is estimated at 23 million fry, up a few million from last year. But only about 20 percent of the fry typically survive to the smolt stage, and taking future harvest into account, better flows would have increased the number of returning adults by only a couple of thousand fish. More than 140,000 fall chinook returned to the Reach this year, with about half continuing upriver past Priest Rapids Dam.)

Grant PUD spokesman Doug Ancona said it wasn't fair to characterize his utility's operations as being responsible for the high fry mortality. He said Grant couldn't smooth out the large fluctuations in water releases from Grand Coulee this year, where the stranding and consequent mortality of fry was 16 times higher than in the previous two years. Ancona also noted that Grant's two projects spilled more water for fish than any others in the system.

Barging began early at McNary Dam this year to help Mid-Columbia fish through the lower river, but the report downplayed the value of transporting fish. It cited the Independent Scientific Group's 1996 report Return to the River to say "that even if all juvenile salmon could be collected for transportation, there is no evidence to suggest that even minimal survival rates could be achieved, let alone those survival rates necessary to rebuild salmon populations."

Since then, some survival rates have improved by eight times, including those of barged fish. For instance, the fish Passage Center's own continuing study on the subject has found that PIT-tag returns from some Idaho hatchery fish have shown nearly 4 percent smolt-to-adult returns, right in the middle of the 2 percent to 6 percent returns that many regional biologists feel is required to recover the runs.

The coalition's report also failed to address the increased survival of adult migrating fish from less spill this year, borne out in radio-tag results reported recently at a Corps of Engineers' research confab in Walla Walla.

BPA spokesman Ed Mosey was candid about the report. "Their analysis is based on June prices--no responsible utility would wait until June--it's just a hindsight thing.

"We had a big reliability issue," Mosey added. He said if BPA had contracted early for power to maintain spill levels, it could have cost the agency a billion dollars, or even as much as three billion, close to the annual gross revenues the agency generates.

Related Pages:
2001 Spill Program Shortchanged Fish by Barry Espenson, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 12/7/01

Bill Rudolph
Enviros Say BPA Could Have Spilled More for Fish; Agency Disagrees
NW Fishletter, December 20, 2001

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