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Commentaries and editorials

Bonneville Power Administration
and a Northwest Icon

by Michelle Sells, Outdoors Reporter
Boise States' The Arbiter, April 22, 2004

Since the 1990s it has been common practice to “spill” smolts and water over the dams that fish must navigate on their way to the ocean where they will mature. The practice of spill has been shown to be much more natural and helpful to the smolts than passing them through the turbines or trucking them down river. Turbines are often lethal and trucking or barging can expose thousands of smolt to disease that they might not otherwise encounter.

March 30, The Bonneville Power Administration announced that it hopes to reduce the summer spill program. “Spill reductions would be implemented in mid-July at Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River and in August on both the Snake and lower Columbia rivers. Spill at lower river projects (Bonneville, The Dalles and John Day) would end on July 21,” according to the Preliminary Proposal, published by the BPA. The BPA cites economic reasons for reducing the spill, claiming a loss of about 50 million a year. BPA also asserts that the cost of the spills is excessive considering the number of salmon, approximately 20 adults, it projects as receiving benefits from the spill.

The administration has supplied a detailed mitigation plan for the fish that they know will be lost because of this plan. One aspect of this plan is to reduce pikeminnow predation upon the smolts through “public angler-driven systemwide removals of predator-sized (nine inches or greater) northern pikeminnow”. The plan calls for a very heavy increase in harvesting of these fish in the areas that the smolt must migrate. Pikeminnow are known to feed heavily upon migrating smolt and reducing these fish would indicate a greater number of smolt make it to the ocean. How large the number of fish to be saved is unknown at this point and would require follow up over a three year time period to determine.

Another aspect of the mitigation plan is the Hanford Reach anti-stranding operation. The operation indicates that the BPA will continue to assist Grant County Public Utilities to “limit flow fluctuations from Priest Rapids Dam” in order to prevent young smolts from becoming stranded in shallow pools which can occur when water levels fluctuate. Operations conducted upstream of Priest Dam by the BPA can affect these water levels. The BPA has been participating voluntarily in this program since 1999.

The power administration has listed numerous other mitigation actions including, additional flow augmentation from Dworshak, tribal harvest enforcement funding, additional or improved artificial production, avian predation research and a host of others in their Preliminary Proposal.

In a report compiled by the conservation group Save Our Wild Salmon entitled “What Scientists Say about Cutting Summer Spill”, the states of Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Idaho Departments of Fish and Wildlife all responded negatively to the proposal. According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, “Any reduction in spill, even as part of an ‘evaluation’, is risky because this may mean additional mortality of stocks that cannot be addressed … under the Biological Opinion ... [T]here is a high likelihood that the projected survival improvements in the Biological Opinion are underestimates of those necessary for survival and recovery of listed populations; spill reductions will only take us further from meeting these survival and recovery thresholds.”

The numbers of fish to be lost, as reported by BPA are also under fire. The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Nez Perce Tribe, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Shoshone Bannock Tribe, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife have all jointly voiced a concern that the model used by BPA to project fish numbers are inaccurate and uncertain, according to the Save Our Wild Salmon report. The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission computer projections show a possible loss of 50,000 returning salmon.

If one examines carefully the Preliminary Proposal set forth by the BPA, it becomes clear that the two main mitigation plans proposed—the anti-stranding and the reduction of pikeminnow—have been in effect for some time. The pikeminnow reduction program has been in operation since 1990 and has reduced this population by approximately 2 million fish. The BPA Preliminary Proposal states “Comments from the state, federal and tribal fishery agencies joint technical staff suggests that while there may be benefit from increased removal of northern pikeminnow, those effects would not be discernable.” In response, BPA proposes an even greater number of pikeminnow be removed from target waters, in the range of 10-20 percent of the population. “We believe increased removal of northern pikeminnow has the effect of reduced consumption on smolts, a positive trend that has biological value and that can be estimated.”

The anti-stranding operation has been in effect since 1999 and has proved beneficial to the population in that area. Continued efforts in this area should not be included in the mitigation plan as the current population of salmon are due in part to these efforts. No significant changes have been made in this area and therefore there will be no increase in population or recovery.

Throughout the Bush administration, the plan has been anything short of breaching the dams. Now, in times of economic hardship, it has become anything short of breaching the dams and anything that costs less money. The Bush administration and the BPA are ignoring hard scientific fact regarding this issue and substituting their own unfounded speculations and beliefs in its place.

The facts are that the mitigation plans and the number of fish in jeopardy from this plan are in dispute, many states depend heavily on these fish for income and the promises made to those states, by the federal government, regarding fishable populations are being ignored.

Idaho recently has been enjoying a healthy number of returning salmonoids due to favorable oceanic conditions. In the year 2001 this state received benefit of 46.2 million dollars of revenue generated by the salmon run.

This current proposal, while keeping the cost of power low, could result in serious loss of revenue in our tourist industry. Field and Stream recently touted Idaho as having two of the top 50 “Best Places in North America to catch the fish of your dreams” and steelhead (a salmonoid) is one of the attractions. This is a trend we as a state should be encouraging. This proposal could do harm to a great Northwest icon as well as our income. To the BPA and the Bush administration, I would ask the question, “What is the acceptable cost of an extinct population and broken promises?”

bluefish does the math for your convenience: BPA estimates that eliminating summer spill would provide 1.15 - 1.49 million Megawatt*hours (MWh) of "surplus" electricity to sell (typically to California) at an estimated average price of $32/MWh (yielding $37 - $46 million). Prices of course will vary with time of day and electricity market conditions. BPA estimates that elimination of summer spill could potentially provide a 2% electricity rate reduction.

Michelle Sells, Outdoors Reporter
Bonneville Power Administration and a Northwest Icon
Boise States' The Arbiter, April 22, 2004

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