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BPA Spills Water to Help Hatchery Salmon

by Dan Hansen, Staff Writer
The Spokesman Review, March 15, 2001

Officials from areas suffering water shortages criticize move as wasteful

The Bonneville Power Administration, which has warned that the parched Northwest will have too little water for generating power and helping endangered salmon, spilled enough over the weekend to generate $2.1million worth of electricity.

The agency spilled that water over the top of Bonneville Dam -- rather than through its power-generating turbines -- for the sake of plentiful hatchery salmon. That angered some policy-makers and advisers from upstream areas suffering water shortages.

"It's a waste of money and water," said Stan Grace, a Montana representative on the Northwest Power Planning Council. His state has seen two reservoirs nearly drained to generate power downstream.

The Spring Creek National Fish Hatchery on the lower Columbia River releases about 15 million juvenile chinook salmon each year. The hatchery is upstream of Bonneville Dam, so the BPA normally spills water during the spring migration so the baby salmon can go over the top of the dam, rather than through the blenderlike turbines.

When fish go through the turbines, as many as 12 percent are killed, said Chris Ross, a National Marine Fisheries Service biologist. About 2 percent die when they're spilled over the top of the dam, Ross said.

Due to this year's shortage of energy and water, federal agencies that manage federal dams and salmon recovery cut back the spill by 90 percent.

Still, about 50,000 cubic feet per second spilled over Bonneville Dam for 36 hours last weekend. By comparison, the Spokane River reaches 40,000 cfs only during the worst floods.

The spill was requested by the fisheries service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Columbia River Intertribal Fisheries Commission, and Washington and Oregon wildlife agencies.

The BPA similarly spills water during spring and summer to help salmon from the Snake River and upper Columbia River tributaries reach the ocean. The fisheries service has called those spills critical to the recovery of endangered salmon runs.

But with power costs soaring this year, the BPA has said those spills likely will be greatly scaled back, or may not happen at all. Instead, the fish will be barged around dams, a strategy some biologists, the tribes and many environmental groups say is ineffective.

In a press release announcing the Spring Creek spills, BPA acting administrator Steve Wright noted the need to be "extremely judicious" with water from the Columbia, which is expected to reach record low flows this summer.

Wright was quoted in the press release as saying, "Even though this (spill) is costly and water is in short supply, we are committed to doing what we can to help the salmon recovery effort."

The statement galls critics of the spill.

"This has nothing to do with recovery," said Jim Litchfield, who represents Montana when state and federal agencies discuss river operations. "I've never heard anyone say these fish have anything to do with helping the endangered species effort."

Called "tules," the salmon produced by the Spring Creek hatchery boost the catch of chinook by commercial and sport fishermen.

While the region has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into hatcheries, federal biologists say the fish they produce may actually threaten wild salmon by competing for food and increasing predation.

Some hatcheries have mixed local runs with fish from far-flung rivers, creating genetic mongrels.

But Ross said genetic mixing isn't a problem with the Spring Creek hatchery, which was built in 1972 to make up for salmon losses caused by federal dams. The tules are native to the Columbia River Gorge and gave Washington's White Salmon River its name.

Dan Hansen, Staff Writer
BPA Spills Water to Help Hatchery Salmon
Spokesman Review, March 15, 2001

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