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BPA Again Puts Power before Fish

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, April 14, 2001

The federal electricity marketing agency plans to extend a bar on spilling water from dams

The Bonneville Power Administration will re-declare a power emergency Monday because of a continued water shortage in the Northwest, an action that will bar the release of water for salmon from federal dams for at least two more weeks.

Spilling water at dams, which normally begins April 3, was canceled two weeks ago because the BPA's acting administrator, Steve Wright, declared a power emergency. At a meeting of federal, state and tribal officials Friday in Portland, he said that the runoff forecast is still too low to both spill water for salmon and meet the region's power needs.

The emergency declaration lets the BPA waive tough federal requirements for aiding endangered runs of salmon and steelhead. An extensive salmon recovery plan normally requires that millions of gallons of water be diverted from turbines at federal dams and sent over spillways, offering young salmon safer passage to the sea. But spilling means forgoing the generation of enough electricity to supply about 660,000 homes.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency in charge of endangered salmon, supported the BPA Friday.

"The issue is reliability," said Donna Darm, acting regional director of the fisheries service. "If we spill water now and are wrong about the forecast, we risk rolling blackouts this summer."

The latest runoff forecast, released Friday by the National Weather Service, predicts the total amount of water carried down the Columbia River at The Dalles will be 56.1 million acre feet from January to July. That's a little higher then the 55.7 million acre feet forecast two weeks ago, but still 47 percent below normal, which is 105.9 million acre feet. An acre foot is enough water to cover an acre one foot deep.

Harold Opitz, the hydrologist in charge of the National Weather Service's river forecast center in Portland, said rain and snow over the last two weeks has been above normal in the Columbia River Basin. But while the extra water will help, it has not been enough to avert a water shortage, he said.

The BPA has said that if the river carries less than 54 million acre feet of water, the agency will be stretched hard just to meet electricity demand and will have no extra water for fish.

Also Friday, the BPA released a proposed operation plan for the federal dams this spring and summer. That plan sets a range of water levels that must be exceeded this year if water is to be spilled for fish.

The plan says that spill should be suspended even when the runoff forecast exceeds 54 million acre feet, however. The BPA needs protection against the forecast being wrong, agency officials said, and should store some additional water for power generation next year.

Tribal leaders at the Friday meeting were not pleased. Four tribes have treaty rights to Columbia River salmon and say that if the spill is cut, future salmon runs will be devastated.

"We are going to see some very dismal results based on these proposals," said Don Sampson, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. The National Marine Fisheries Service and the Northwest Power Planning Council, a panel representing Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana, say suspending the spill will increase salmon death rates by up to 13 percent.

Tribal biologists and conservationists dispute those numbers. They say the impact could be greater, because spilling not only makes it easier for fish to get past dams but also speeds their passage down the river, which could be lethally warm this summer.

"The federal government is not doing enough to get water in the rivers," said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. Spain said the BPA should increase efforts to buy water from farmers, particularly in Idaho. "The likely result of this short-sighted action is a salmon massacre."

Wright said Friday that the BPA was willing to spend additional money to rebuild salmon stocks. But he did not say how much the agency would spend or what programs it would pay for.

"There are actions we are taking that will have a negative effect on fish," he said. "We're seeking proposals for measures that will reduce that impact."

The BPA will take comments on its proposed plan, posted on the Internet at, until April 20.

Jonathan Brinckman
BPA Again Puts Power before Fish
The Oregonian, April 14, 2001

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