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Commentaries and editorials

Council Disputes Controls of Rivers

by Mike Lee, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, October 31, 2002

The Northwest Power Planning Council is challenging federal river operations rules, saying more water should be provided for hydropower and a little less for fish.

The outcome would be more flexible power operations during peak winter demand times with little or no biological cost, proponents say.

Resulting power sales could generate millions of dollars a year for fish recovery efforts that are deemed more useful than the current program of flushing large amounts of water into the Snake and Columbia rivers each spring to help young salmon get downstream.

"It's definitely a chance to make a more efficient system," said Larry Cassidy, chairman and Washington representative on the power council.

Although proposed river flow reductions are only about 2 percent of the April target flows, the reduction is expected to trigger a regional debate about the value of the federal "flow augmentation" program.

Questions have circled for years about whether the tens of millions of dollars in foregone power revenues caused by the "fish flush" program are justified by what some say are negligible fish benefits.

"We know our draft amendments will be controversial because we propose to change the status quo dam operations," Cassidy said. "But we acknowledge that there are significant questions about the fish benefits of spring flow augmentation."

The council, composed of representatives from the four Northwest states, aims to provide a venue for the debate even though the National Marine Fisheries Service is not bound by its recommendations.

"A council decision would be of great interest because it represents regional consensus, additional scientific information and a balance of interests that are more than just salmon," regional NMFS administrator Bob Lohn recently told The Oregonian.

Because most council members believe the biological benefits of spring flow increases for migrating salmon and steelhead have not been well documented, their draft amendments propose to shift some water currently used for that purpose to the winter. The council does not believe such a shift would harm spring-migrating salmon and steelhead.

Cassidy on Wednesday reiterated a request for regional scientists and agencies to present research that contradicts the council's view.

He'll get support from Darryll Olsen, a Kennewick water consultant who has pushed the council for years to adopt a similar program that rejects federal flow targets and puts power money toward what he sees as more beneficial projects.

Olsen is optimistic NMFS will follow suit once council recommendations are completed late this winter.

Power system flexibility would come from loosening requirements that major storage reservoirs such as Grand Coulee and Hungry Horse be nearly full April 10 so water can be used for spring flow. The current program forces reservoir operators to conservatively mete out winter water for power production.

By allowing for a longer refill period, dam operators could dip a bit deeper into reservoirs to meet peak demands.

Council figures show a 1 percent to 2 percent flow reduction would provide an additional 41 average megawatts, approximately enough to serve 23,000 homes.

At today's prices, that power is worth about $11 million, which some suggest should go toward other fish recovery projects.

Mike Lee
Council Disputes Controls of Rivers
Tri-City Herald, October 31, 2002

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