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Dam Management Plan Angers Environmentalists

by Steve Ernst
Puget Sound Business Journal, November 18, 2002

The Northwest Power Planning Council has drawn the wrath of environmentalists over a proposal to change the way dams and reservoirs on the Columbia and Snake rivers are managed. The changes would shift some river operations away from rules stipulated in the 2000 Biological Opinion, which is supposed to be the blueprint for salmon recovery.

Last month the Portland-based council suggested a plan that would decrease the amount of water released from upriver reservoirs on the Columbia and Snake rivers during the spring and summer, leaving more water in reservoirs that could increase hydroelectric output in the winter.

The changes would also curtail the amount of water released over dam spillways, which help young salmon migrate to the sea. The water would instead be diverted through power turbines to increase power production.

Environmentalists say the proposed changes would turn the clock back 20 to 30 years on salmon recovery.

Starting in April, the plan would reduce water released from upriver reservoirs by 2 percent. In May flows would be reduced by 1 percent and in June by about a half-percent. The change also calls for eliminating rules that require reservoirs be filled to within 6 inches by April 10.

Council members believe the biological benefits of spring flow augmentation for migrating salmon and steelhead have not been well-documented, so they have proposed shifting some water currently used in spring and summer to the winter, the council said in a prepared statement.

"The council does not believe such a shift would harm spring-migrating salmon and steelhead," according to a press release.

The plan is designed to improve hydro system flexibility, which would help in the event of future power emergencies, and could result in increased hydropower sales. The plan has the support of irrigators as well power council representatives in Montana and Idaho.

The council's plan would release less water over spring and summer, while spreading it out over a longer period of time. Currently water is released from upriver reservoirs from May through August. The proposal would extend the release until September.

The changes would also create the potential to generate about 41 average megawatts annually from increased water flows in the winter. That's enough to power 23,000 homes in the Northwest.

The proposal calls on federal agencies to reduce the amount of water flowing in these rivers during key salmon migration periods, environmentalists say.

In October, a lack of water in the Klamath River, a stem of the Columbia River, caused the death of 33,000 migrating chinook, coho and steelhead near Grants Pass.

"One would have thought that 33,000 dead fish floating in the Klamath last month would have resolved the question of whether or not fish truly need water to survive," said Jeff Curtis of Trout Unlimited in a prepared statement.

"But it appears that certain interests within the Power Council are still interested in testing that principle," he said

But the council believes the change would improve habitat conditions for "reservoir- and river-dwelling fish," such as salmon, steelhead, bull trout and sturgeon in the headwaters of the Columbia and Snake rivers in Montana and Idaho.

The power council's new plan directly contradicts the Endangered Species Act, which relies heavily on water flows to help salmon survive, according to Save Our Wild Salmon, a Seattle-based environmental group.

"The power council is simply wrong to assert that flows are not important to salmon recovery," said Rob Masonis, regional director of American Rivers. "The power council's recommendation is at odds with the recommendations of the state and tribal fishery scientists, and its own scientific advisory board."

The council's proposal, called "Draft Mainstream Amendments to the Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program," will be open for public comment through Jan. 19. The plan must be approved by National Marine Fisheries Services.

The council is expected to make a decision on the proposed changes next year, at which time it may begin lobbying National Marine Fisheries Services to change its policy.

"We want to hear from everybody on this," said John Harrison, spokesman for the council. "We really want people to look at the science behind this and tell us what they think."

The power planning council was formed by the states of Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington to help oversee hydroelectric production and conservation efforts in the Columbia River basin.

Steve Ernst
Dam Management Plan Angers Environmentalists
Puget Sound Business Journal, November 18, 2002

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