the film
Commentaries and editorials

BPA, Big Customers Call Dam Spill Too Costly

by Joe Rojas-Burke
The Oregonian, March 2, 2004

The summer effort to aid fish passage runs $77 million,
but state officials don't see proven alternatives

As it stands, Columbia River dam operators open spillways in spring and summer to help young fish pass without getting chewed up in power-generating turbines. Costs are incurred because the spilled water can't be harnessed to generate electricity.

The Bonneville Power Administration and its largest customers assert that the benefits for salmon are modest and not worth the price, estimated to run about $77 million in a typical July and August, when surplus power finds much demand in California. BPA is seeking to reduce the amount of water spilled for fish those two months.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies are nearing a decision on what to do this summer.

On Monday, members of a House subcommittee expressed dismay at the low estimates of the benefits for salmon.

"At $77 million a year we're saving 20 fish? Am I reading this correctly?" asked Rep. Mike Schaufler, D-Happy Valley. He was referring to an estimate for threatened chinook only. Including all affected stocks, estimates presented by Bonneville Power show a boost of about 19,000 returning adults.

The numbers are low because many migrating salmon are captured upstream of dams and transported by barge or truck past the hydro system. And by late summer, many that migrate in-river have already passed the dams.

Not all experts agree with the calculations presented by Bonneville. Biologists with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents four tribes, said cutting out spill in July and August could result in the loss of 50,000 fall chinook.

Bonneville officials say the benefits of spill can be achieved by cheaper means, such as controlling predators that prey heavily on young salmon and preventing stranding of newly hatched chinook in the Hanford reach, a problem caused by sharp fluctuations in flow because of dam operations.

About 50,000 returning adult fish could be gained by spending $100,000 to limit river flow fluctuations in the Hanford reach, according to a report by BPA, the Army Corps and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

But Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife officials warned that the benefits of the alternatives are too little known to trust.

"Our analysis of the offsets is they do not meet the requirements," said Ed Bowles, manager of the department's fish division. He unequivocally said that spilling water over dams is "no dispute, the best way to get fish past the concrete."

Gov. Ted Kulongoski, for his part, supports "a rigorous evaluation of the summer spill program," said adviser Tom Byler. But he said the governor wants more certainty about the effectiveness of alternative measures, and more assurance from Bonneville about savings in electric bills for Oregon residents.

Joe Rojas-Burke
BPA, Big Customers Call Dam Spill Too Costly
The Oregonian, March 2, 2004

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation