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Easing One Crisis, But Adding to Another

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, May 21, 2001

BPA saves energy by spilling less water for salmon,
which some fear will hurt fish in the long run

The journey downriver has become even more harrowing for millions of young salmon and steelhead migrating to the ocean this spring.

In a normal year, the federal government spills water over the eight dams on the lower Snake and Columbia rivers to give the fish safer passage. This year, the federal government decided the Northwest's need for power outweighed the fish's need for water.

Most of the water that would be flowing over the dams' spillways instead is being sent through turbines to generate electricity. The decision already has saved the Bonneville Power Administration about $1 billion this year and helped the Northwest avoid the rolling blackouts that have plagued California, BPA officials say.

But biologists say that sharply reducing the spill threatens the long-term survival of some endangered fish populations -- especially wild upper Columbia salmon and steelhead -- and could set back their recovery for years.

"What's happened makes me extremely nervous," said Howard Schaller, a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "It makes me think that this region doesn't have the will to do what it needs to recover these fish."

Compounding the threat from the reduced spill and near-record-low river flows caused by an unusually dry winter, the number of endangered spring/summer chinook leaving the Snake this year is the third-lowest on record. What's more, a hot summer could raise water temperatures to lethal levels for young fish.

The Columbia Basin's dams operate under a federal salmon recovery plan that requires the government to release water from storage reservoirs when young salmon and steelhead migrate to the ocean. The plan, forged in response to the listing of a dozen Columbia Basin stocks under the federal Endangered Species Act, calls for millions of gallons of water to be sent over spill ways instead of through the dams' power-generating turbines.

For migrating fish, a trip through the turbines is more hazardous: About 10 percent are killed or injured by the spinning blades and pressure changes or are eaten by predators that lie in wait below the dams and pick off fish disoriented by their trip through the roiling water.

Unless spring rains, which have brought some relief to the Northwest, continue into early summer, the journey to the sea will be even more difficult in the coming months. Without rain, it's unlikely that power managers would provide spill in late summer.

"A huge benefit"

The BPA, which markets electricity generated by the Northwest's federal dams, says it has no choice. If the agency is to survive and keep electricity rate increases for Northwest residents and industry below triple digits, some salmon-saving measures must be scaled back this year, BPA officials said.

The savings from not spilling water for fish have been "a huge benefit, both from the reliability and cost perspective for Northwest ratepayers," acting administrator Stephen Wright said Wednesday.

The region's federal dams are generating about 25 percent less power than normal. If the BPA can't supply the region's power needs from federal dams, it must buy electricity on the wholesale market -- where prices have soared. Power that cost $25 per megawatt hour last year is selling now for $180 to $410 per megawatt hour.

Wright declared power emergencies in the spring, allowing the dams' operators to waive requirements of the salmon-recovery plan and send almost all the river's water through the turbines. The plan lets the BPA declare an emergency if the region faces an electricity shortage. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dams, had halted spring spill completely until Wednesday and now is spilling about one-third the normal requirement for three weeks.

For Wright, ensuring the reliability of the region's power supply and the BPA's long-term fiscal health is more important than spilling water to aid salmon.

In April alone, the federal dams generated about 775,000 megawatt hours of electricity from water that is supposed to be diverted through spillways under the federal recovery plan. That's enough electricity to power about 500,000 homes. It was worth about $226 million at April's average wholesale electricity price of $292 per megawatt hour -- more than 10 times its value a year ago.

Despite the economic benefits, Wright said, deciding against spilling water for fish has not been easy. "We are deeply divided as a region on the spill question. For some, any spill would be a big mistake. For others, any less than what is called for in (the federal salmon plan) would be a big mistake."

Expensive efforts

Since 1980, salmon recovery efforts in the Columbia River Basin have cost about $4.5 billion. The money -- most of it provided by BPA ratepayers -- pays for a range of measures designed to help the basin's 12 populations of threatened or endangered salmon and steelhead populations. Those efforts include modifying dams to make them easier for fish to pass; changing fish hatchery operations to protect wild fish; improving fish habitat in rivers and streams; and restricting logging and grazing near streams.

Historically, as many as 16 million salmon and steelhead returned each year to spawn in the Columbia Basin. By the 1960s, the runs had fallen to about 5 million, and today only about 1 million fish return -- most of them hatchery-bred.

Seven runs of threatened or endangered salmon cross one or more federal dams on their way to the ocean. Each dam they must cross increases the chance that they'll die before reaching the river estuary, where they adapt to salt water before moving into the open ocean.

Snake River fish normally must cross eight dams on the way to the ocean if they remain in the river. This year, low runoff has slowed the Snake River, prolonging the journey to the sea and exposing young fish to predation and higher water temperatures that can be lethal.

To compensate, the salmon recovery plan calls for collecting as many Snake River fish as possible, loading them into trucks or barges and transporting them past the dams to the lower Columbia. About 85 percent to 90 percent of Snake River salmon and steelhead are being transported downstream this spring.

Although those fish are unaffected by the decision to reduce spill, biologists disagree about the effects of barging on young fish. Some studies indicate that fewer barged fish survive to return as adults and spawn than do juvenile fish that remain in the river and pass through spillways.

Salmon that spawn in the upper and mid-Columbia cross fewer dams -- one to four, depending on where the salmon spawn. Only one, McNary Dam near Umatilla, has a collection system for loading fish into barges.

Fish that enter the Columbia downstream from McNary Dam, including threatened steelhead that spawn in the John Day and Deschutes rivers, cannot be barged or trucked downstream because there's no way to capture them.

Mid-Columbia and upper Columbia salmon and steelhead will be hurt most by the BPA's decision to reduce the spill, federal biologists said.

The National Marine Fisheries Service calculates that halting all spill until last Wednesday increased the death rates of listed upper Columbia and mid-Columbia chinook and steelhead by 11.2 percent to 13.5 percent during the time no water was being spilled. The limited spill will reduce those rates by one-third to two-thirds during the three weeks the water is being spilled, the agency estimates.

Because most Snake River fish are being barged or trucked downriver this year, their overall death rate will rise by less than 1 percent even with no spill, biologists estimated. But the few Snake River salmon and steelhead that remain in the river and have to cross the dams face a 15.5 percent increase in mortality with no spill, the fisheries service calculated.

Worries amid record return

Ironically, the danger to the migrating juvenile fish has been obscured this year by a record return of adult upriver spring chinook -- an estimated 400,000 fish, most of them hatchery bred. As those adult chinook fight currents, dodge thousands of anglers and climb fish ladders to reach their spawning grounds, millions of baby salmon are riding the river in the opposite direction on their journey to the ocean.

Most of those young fish hatched last year from eggs laid by salmon that returned to spawn in 1999, one of the worst years in modern history for many runs of endangered and threatened salmon.

Biologists estimate that 450,000 young threatened Snake River spring/summer chinook will leave the Columbia Basin this year. The worst year was 1995, when only 162,000 fish left the basin. The outlook is worse for upper Columbia chinook and steelhead, which are listed as endangered.

Biologists have been stunned by the simultaneous record return of spring chinook and the low number of migrating fish, which now face dismal prospects in the river.

"I have deep frustration," said Patrick Frazier, a biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "At the same time as we're having this glorious run and are enjoying the bounty of good things happening for fish in the past, we are making decisions that are not good for fish. It's awful to have the good and the bad right in front of you at the exact same time."

Biologists in Idaho are even more pessimistic.

"The combination of low river flows with no spill will really knock the stuffing out of Snake River fish," said Charlie Petrowsky, a biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

Predicting how many of the salmon and steelhead leaving the Columbia now will return as adults in 2004 is impossible. The fish spend two to four years feeding in the open ocean, so the size of returning runs hinges partly on ocean conditions. If they have plenty of food, more fish than usual could return as adults. That could partly compensate for high juvenile death rates in the river this year.

Still, salmon returns in 2004 will be lower than they otherwise would be because of Columbia River hydropower operations this year, biologists said.

"It's going to be bad," said Schaller, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We aren't providing maximum protection to a really weak year-class of fish."

To many biologists, the decisions this year have shown that for the federal government, some key salmon recovery measures are optional.

Spilling water over dams is part of a package of fish-saving measures that federal officials chose last year as an alternative to breaching the four lower Snake River dams. The plan was called the "aggressive nonbreach strategy" because aggressive measures to restore threatened salmon and steelhead runs were prescribed as an alternative to breaching dams. One of those measures was large amounts of spill.

Tribal officials and other proponents of breaching the dams, which would allow the Snake River to flow freely around them, said the federal government has failed to stick to its own plan.

"This is no way to recover fish," said Ted Koch, a federal biologist in Boise and past president of the Idaho chapter of the American Fisheries Society. "We are lying to ourselves as a region if we think we are recovering salmon and meeting our other needs, too."

Jonathan Brinckman
Easing One Crisis, But Adding to Another
The Oregonian, May 21, 2001

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