Arguments Against Increased Flows at Dams
by Jonathan Brinckman
Opponents of the spring releases say
the program incurs unnecessary costs without producing results
More ocean-bound salmon survive when flows on the Columbia and Snake rivers are boosted during summer months, but federal studies show no such correlation for salmon that migrate during the spring.
And even though survival rates increase in the summer, scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service can't prove that's a result of the increased river flows.
That lack of direct proof has led critics of the federal government's $435 million-a-year salmon recovery effort to call for scaling back a program that releases extra water from enormous storage reservoirs such as Grand Coulee in Eastern Washington and Dworshak in Idaho.
The "flow augmentation" program costs at least $150 million a year, because it disrupts electricity generation at federal dams. The Bonneville Power Administration, which distributes electricity from the dams, loses money because it is unable to sell some power when prices are highest and because it then also must buy power to meet demand.
"We've wasted hundreds of millions of dollars for no reason at all in the spring, and I don't even think you can make a reasonable correlation (between increased flow and increased salmon survival) in the summer," said James Buchal, a Portland lawyer and longtime critic of federal salmon recovery efforts.
"The flow augmentation program doesn't really do anything," Buchal said. "Environmentalists rely on the larger populace having only a superficial grasp of these issues."
Carl Dreyer, executive director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources, agrees that the cost of boosting flows may not be worth the benefit. Dreyer makes that case as often as possible, including before the Northwest Power Planning Council and a congressional committee.
Most years, flow augmentation means that 1.2 million acre-feet of water is released from Dworshak on the Clearwater River, 327,000 acre-feet from Brownlee and 427,000 acre-feet from other reservoirs on the upper Snake River, Dreyer said. An acre-foot of water would cover an area about the size of a football field to a depth of 1 foot.
Although the water releases have real costs to irrigators, industrial and residential power users, and recreational boaters, the benefits are unclear, Dreyer said. "People ask me why I am questioning this," he said. "They say flow augmentation for fish is the most conservative thing to do. But we need to better understand what is going on. I've been successful getting people to examine, if not question, the assumption that flow augmentation makes sense."
Many conservationists, including Liz Hamilton, the executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, do not question the benefit of increased flows for salmon. Fish that leave for the ocean in years of abundant runoff tend to return in large numbers, Hamilton said.
"You can't turn away from the fact that when you have more flow, you get a corresponding bump in salmon returns," she said. "It's insulting to our intelligence to suggest that there isn't a correlation between flow and survival."
Critics of flow augmentation are defending the economic interests of people they represent, not the salmon, Hamilton said.
Fisheries service scientists measure the survival of ocean-bound salmon smolts by inserting miniature transistors -- the size of a grain of rice -- into hundreds of thousands of fish each year. Each passive integrated transponder, or PIT tag, emits a unique signal that allows scientists to keep track of the tagged fish as it crosses each dam. Sensors installed in the dams' fish-bypass systems detect the fish, and computers can keep track even of individual fish.
PIT-tag studies have found that salmon migrating in the spring, including steelhead and sub-yearling chinook, travel downstream faster when flows are higher. But the studies have found only a weak relationship between spring flows and the survival of young fish as they head downstream.
Survival rates rise
Survival rates for fish that migrate during summer months, including yearling chinook, rise as flow increases. Scientists can't prove that increased flows by themselves boost survival, however, because when flow is up, the water also is generally cooler and murkier.
Young salmon could be faring better because they like cool water or because increased turbidity helps them hide from predators such as northern pikeminnow, walleye and bass.
Brian Brown, hydrosystem manager for the fisheries service, said the agency believes that increased flows in both spring and summer help salmon. The agency, which is responsible for salmon protection under the federal Endangered Species Act, has no intention of abandoning flow augmentation, Brown said.
The federal government boosts flow in the spring by filling reservoirs as much as it can by the end of winter. That means it is normally able to let springs flows go while still maintaining full storage in reservoirs. Water is released later in the year to augment summer flows.
This year is different because to meet wintertime power demand during an unusually dry year, federal agencies have released some stored water they normally would save until spring.
"Since these fish evolved with a strong spring freshet, we think allowing as much of that freshet to happen is a good idea," Brown said. "We have heard the arguments against that and did not find them persuasive."
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