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Commentaries and editorials

Fish Need Water

by Editors
The Oregonian, December 12, 2002

When the federal government properly decided against breaching four Snake River dams to help recover endangered salmon and steelhead, it promised an "aggressive nonbreach" effort to restore the fish.

Now the four-state Northwest Power Planning Council is calling for a modest retreat on fish recovery -- in effect, promoting a nonaggressive nonbreach plan to save salmon.

The power council, formed in 1980 to balance the needs of fish and wildlife, power generation and irrigation in the Columbia system, is shopping a draft proposal to ease federal rules that protect 12 imperiled runs of fish. The power council has held a series of public hearings, including one Tuesday in Portland, and this spring will recommend to the federal government new guidelines for dam operations.

Utility companies, industrial power users and irrigators all are pressing the council to soften the rules and allow them access to more water now left in river to help carry salmon and steelhead smolts to the ocean. They claim no solid evidence shows that releasing extra water into rivers each spring and summer, as now required, leads to improved fish survival.

That's a deliberate misreading of the available science. A number of studies have found strong correlations between river flow, which determines how quickly smolts travel to the ocean, and juvenile salmon and steelhead survival. Even the power council's own Independent Scientific Advisory Board has said the augmented flow should continue because studies show benefits for wild fish and a high correlation between flow and survival.

We'll concede there is no conclusive proof just a handful of years into the new federal recovery program that every last acre-foot of flow required under the rules is needed to restore fish runs. But the burden of proof sits not with those arguing that fish need water, but those who insist otherwise.

The proponents of relaxing the rules claim the science supporting the higher flows is "unclear" and "uncertain." But by the same token, the power council cannot possibly be clear or certain that reducing flows and extending the travel time of smolts to the sea won't lead to more fish losses and lower adult returns.

The Northwest just got a vivid lesson in the risks of this faith-based approach to fisheries management on the Klamath River. The Bush administration ignored warnings from fisheries biologists, cut back flows and diverted water to irrigators, and then sent downstream what little water it thought, or hoped, was enough for fish. Thirty-three thousand salmon and steelhead went belly up in the warm, polluted lower Klamath this fall.

It's possible that one day scientists may conclude that the flow levels for fish could be safely reduced in the Columbia Basin, but that day is not yet here. Yes, near-perfect ocean conditions and other factors have allowed large returns of salmon to the Columbia basin during the past three years. But ocean conditions will change, the runs will fall again and river conditions will be crucial.

Salmon recovery is slow, hard and costly, and that seems especially so during periods of low water and economic downturns, which the Northwest is now suffering simultaneously. The Oregonian's Jonathan Brinckman reported Tuesday that limits on electricity generation to protect fish reduce Columbia and Snake river dams' annual output by an average of more than 1,000 megawatts 1-- electricity worth $228 million. The power council's draft proposal to reduce water flows would allow an additional $8 million worth of electricity to be generated each year.

Of course, it's tempting to nibble away at the water being set aside for salmon, as the power council is suggesting. It's easy to rationalize such a step, to claim there's no real evidence that the fish need the water, to insist there's no harm in using just a little more of it for irrigation or producing electricity.

But that's the same old, familiar and destructive approach that has so badly damaged fish stocks in the Northwest and around the world.

That's not a salmon-recovery plan. It is a policy of seeing just how little water it takes for salmon to survive.

1 bluefish notes: Coincidently, 1000 megawatts is roughly the average output of the four Lower Snake River dams.

Fish Need Water
The Oregonian, December 12, 2002

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