Meeting Explores Power, Salmon Prioritiesby Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, March 17, 2001
The federal agencies that run the Columbia River Basin dams want feedback
from tribes and states about their operations
Driven by the threat of a Northwest water shortage and a West Coast power crisis, the federal operators of Columbia River Basin dams called a rare emergency meeting Friday with state and tribal officials.
The question: Which salmon protection measures should they sacrifice to keep the lights on?
The three-hour meeting brought no decisions, but it revealed the region's sharp rift over how much power production should be forfeited to save salmon -- and more fundamentally, which salmon stocks should be given top priority.
To speed decision-making, the six federal agencies, led by the Bonneville Power Administration, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, have excluded states and tribes from deliberations over dam operations.
That's no longer good enough, said Donna Darm, acting regional director of the fisheries service.
"We realize that a lot of paranoia is being created," Darm told 45 federal, state and tribal representatives crowded into a meeting room at the Sheraton Portland Airport Hotel. "We invited the tribes and states here today because we recognize a need for a broader discussion."
Steve Wright, administrator of the BPA, said that if the forecast for the amount of water flowing from the Columbia River Basin continues to decline, his agency will have to devote the water solely to energy production if it is to meet regional power demands.
That probably won't happen, he said, and there should be room for some salmon-saving measures.
The forecast is for 57.6 million acre-feet, which would be the second-lowest flow since recordkeeping began in 1929, and just 4.24 million acre-feet above the record low of 53.36 million acre-feet in 1977.
As long as the outflow remains above 53 million feet, Wright said, BPA will have some extra water available. The water could be used in four ways, or some combination, he said:
• To generate more electricity and revenue, which would help BPA lower an almost certain double- to triple-digit rate increase next fiscal year.
• To enhance summer flows, which would speed and cool rivers to help salmon, by releasing water from huge storage reservoirs in eastern Washington, Montana and Idaho.
• To prepare the region for next year by storing the water in reservoirs and not releasing it this year to produce power or help salmon.
Many of the state and tribal representatives sharply disagreed about priorities for water flows.
Tim Weaver, a lawyer for the Yakama Indian Nation, said protecting salmon must be the top priority. "What will it take to have the federal executives recognize our treaty rights?" he asked. "Does it take a lawsuit? If so, we have to be ready."
Jim Litchfield, a Portland-based consultant who represents Montana, said keeping water in the state's reservoirs should be a top priority.
"We want to make sure that we don't end the summer in a situation where Montana's reservoirs are empty," he said. "The reservoirs are our bank account. If we spend them now, we could be in trouble next year."
And decisions to help one type of salmon already are hurting another.
State and federal officials recommended Wednesday that water releases through Bonneville Dam, which are needed to keep chum salmon nests submerged, be cut back so the water can be used to help chinook and steelhead migrate later this year.
About 50 percent to 60 percent of the young chum already have hatched from eggs in the nests, called redds, biologist Howard Schaller said. The remaining chum, perhaps 200,000 young fish, probably will die, he said.
"It's an incredibly difficult decision, knowing that you are going to kill that many fish," Schaller said. "But we managed to stretch the flow until now, and we had to make that decision to save other fish."
Accepting a suggestion from a representative of Gov. John Kitzhaber, Wright said, "We will seek to come up with a proposal and let people chew on it, and chew on us." He didn't say when the proposal would be complete.
Also Friday, Washington Gov. Gary Locke warned of dire consequences from diminishing water supplies. Speaking at a Vancouver-area Kiwanis Club meeting, he urged people to conserve electricity and water.
Earlier this week, Locke declared a drought emergency in the state and told a congressional committee that energy price caps are needed in the West.
"Working together," he said, "we can keep our farmers and industry in business, keep our salmon alive and keep a healthy water supply for our citizens."