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Commentaries and editorials

Don't Cut Back Water for Salmon

by Editorial Board
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - February 18, 2003

Columbia River flows are too important to the survival of salmon for anyone to play games.

That's what the Northwest Power and Conservation Council needs to understand as it considers a proposal to toy with how Columbia River dams and reservoirs are operated. The council should abandon the idea.

Then the council and everyone connected with protecting endangered salmon and steelhead stocks on the river must step back and look at how the fish recovery efforts are going. The answer clearly is, not well enough to justify any loss of concentration on the restoration of 12 imperiled fish runs. Not by a long shot.

The council is an advisory body, but its recommendations carry considerable weight with federal agencies operating the dams and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees salmon recovery planning. The council wants to change policy guidelines in the Columbia and Snake rivers to lower the amount of water sent from upstream reservoirs to help speed the passage of salmon through dams.

It makes some sense to consider the idea. The four-state council must take into account the interests of Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

The agency, until recently known as the Northwest Power Planning Council, believes the changes could improve habitat upstream for some inland fish, including bull trout and white sturgeon. Irrigators and electricity producers would like to see the council's plan enacted, because it would provide them more water. The changes would lead to slight additions -- in the neighborhood of 1 percent a year -- in the amount of hydroelectric power generated along the river.

The big danger is that reducing the amount of water flowing through the dams during spring and summer would harm downstream migration of young salmon and steelhead trying to make their way to the ocean.

Among others, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and a group of state, federal and tribal fish managers have raised serious doubts that the change can be made without affecting salmon and steelhead runs. In fact, the fish managers said in a report last month that the council proposal pays little attention to the recommendations of fish and wildlife professionals.

Contrary to what most council members apparently would like to believe, the bulk of the scientific evidence indicates that salmon and steelhead runs benefit from sending extra water through the dams. Indeed, the amount of water provided for the fish consistently has been less than what is believed to be ideal. And the council has just released a report saying that the chances of severe power shortages over the next several years are much smaller than previously believed.

All those factors should help the council see the need to revise its stance as it considers the issue during meetings today through Thursday and again in March, when it is expected to make a final decision. The council must stop, listen to the concerns and find other ways to address the upstream concerns.

But a council decision to preserve the existing river flow policies would, at best, only avoid undoing progress on salmon and steelhead. It won't ensure better efforts at meeting the river flow targets for fish recovery. It won't ensure that federal budget decisions stop shortchanging salmon recovery efforts.

There have been some extraordinarily healthy returns of salmon on the Columbia in the past three years, but that phenomenon has benefited greatly from better conditions in the ocean. The threatened and endangered fish runs are far from real recovery. Progress requires continued greater focus on the recovery efforts, not risky and probably counterproductive changes.

Editorial Board
Don't Cut Back Water for Salmon
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 18, 2003

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