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Power Council Delays Vote on Dam Changes

by Jim Mann
The Daily Inter Lake - March 13, 2003

Members of the Northwest Power Planning Council showed their cards this week, and seeing they didn't have a good hand together, decided to delay voting on a controversial change in dam operations.

Meeting in Whitefish Tuesday and Wednesday, the council decided to hold a special meeting in Portland March 27-28 to review the proposed changes.

"We kind of had to allow the council members to negotiate some of these issues amongst themselves," said Judy Danielson, who represents Idaho and chairs the council.

The council was scheduled this week to discuss and possibly vote on amendments to its fish and wildlife program that influences flows on the main stem of the Columbia River.

Montana's council representatives proposed "Main Stem Amendments" as a way to reduce impacts to fisheries above and below Hungry Horse and Libby dams. The trick is to maintain salmon runs in the lower Columbia and improve hydropower production efficiency.

The proposal calls for a gradual release of water from Montana reservoirs throughout the summer. It is a significant departure from "flow augmentation," the long-standing practice of releasing large pulses of water in late summer to help migrating Columbia River salmon.

Oregon, Washington and Idaho council members came out with proposed revisions to the draft amendments this week. And the revisions often conflicted, said Montana council member John Hines.

Rather than try to hammer out details and compromises in a day, the council decided to take two more weeks.

"The council wants to be real careful that what we do is beneficial for resident fish in Montana and is not harmful to anadromous fish in the lower Columbia," Hines said.

"These are really complicated issues we're trying to address here," he said. "We have a finite amount of water and a lot of competing demands for that water and there's competing science about the best ways to manage that water."

Like Hines, Washington council member Larry Cassidy was optimistic some type of compromise could be reached for a major amendment, which will require a supermajority of six out of the eight council members.

"The central theme that the council has tried to stay with is this needs to be a regional consensus," said Cassidy, adding that he could personally support the Montana approach if there were plans to monitor the benefits and potential impacts on fisheries.

But it could be difficult to quench each state's thirst for water.

One of Oregon's council members, Melinda Eaton, proposed revisions that would require Montana reservoirs to deliver more water for salmon.

"Some of the draft changes certainly ask for more water, including a 20-foot drawdown from our reservoirs," Hines said. "We're hoping that Oregon's concern for salmon can be met without having to go to that drawdown."

Montana officials have for years contended the federal hydro system has been operated in a salmon-centric fashion, at the expense of resident fish, including the Kootenai River white sturgeon and the bull trout, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The biological benefits of flow augmentation have been questioned, most recently by a report from a panel of independent scientists. Meanwhile, biologists have measured the impacts of erratically draining and flooding shorelines above and below the Montana dams.

Hines and Ed Bartlett, Montana's other council member, say releasing water gradually throughout the summer will alleviate those impacts and allow the cash-strapped Bonneville Power Administration to run a more efficient hydropower system.

Jim Mann
Power Council Delays Vote on Dam Changes
The Daily Inter Lake, March 13, 2003

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