Salmon Foes Back In Court Friday
by Rob Manning
OPB News, March 6, 2009
Friday morning, a Portland courtroom will host the latest round in the grudge match between hydroelectric dams and protected salmon.
A few years ago, Portland Judge Jim Redden intervened in the fight, and mandated spilling water to help fish protected by the Endangered Species Act. Judge Redden has threatened harsh consequences again, if he concludes the latest government plan falls short. Rob Manning reports.
Federal dam operators have committed hundreds of millions of dollars to improve salmon habitat. The feds are also installing the last in a series of fish slides.
Steelworkers are working on this slide in Portland, before it heads all the way upriver to the Lower Granite Dam, on the Snake River.
Rock Peters with the Army Corps of Engineers explains how it works.
Rock Peters: "So the basic concept is this will fit down inside the dam, and allow for a top-level of water to be spilled over the dam, instead of underneath the dam, and this will allow the fish, in their normal distribution, to move past the project."
The Army Corps of Engineers says the spillway weirs, as they're called, have a few benefits for fish. Number one, they steer fish away from the dam's dangerous turbines. But Peters says they're also better than regular spill because they direct fish to the safest route past the dam, and away from predators.
Rock Peters: "By using that top part of the water column, we see that more fish would use that than in a normal, conventional spillway. It's a more efficient way to move these fish. So there is potential to get additional power...."
It is not, however, ideal for fish. Bruce Suzumoto is with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He says the weirs are the best alternative.
Bruce Suzumoto: "I mean ideally, yeah, no dams would be the best. But you know, the dams are there, and what we're seeing at least through these, at other projects, we're seeing 98 to nearly 100 percent survival passing over these."
But a few percent of fish lost at one dam and then another and another, adds up. Outgoing smolts -- the juvenile fish -- swimming the length of the Snake and Columbia systems, survive only 40 to 60 percent of the time.
So, one thing Judge Redden has asked attorneys to address in today's hearing is possible removal of the lower Snake River dams. Environmental advocates say that could help fish from Lewiston to Astoria.
But a 2002 Army Corps study recommended keeping the dams, based in part on recent dam improvements like the spillway weir, designed to help fish. That study also said dam removal would result in huge economic costs. The dam operators, Bonneville Power Administration, pointed out that it has committed hundreds of millions of dollars to habitat improvements and those spillway weirs.
Sam Mace: "Weirs can't help with the temperature problems."
That's Sam Mace with the non-profit, Save Our Wild Salmon. She says the dams can't be improved much more.
Sam Mace: "Weirs can't help with the predator problems, and they can't help with the travel problems in those reservoirs for those smolts."
Mace says the weirs help hydropower and salmon coexist. But Mace believes the best answer for the fish is to breach the four dams on the lower Snake River.
That solution introduces another set of problems. One is that it would eliminate roughly three-thousand megawatts of power - or enough electricity to light up 750-thousand homes. Replacing that energy would be expensive. And that's not the biggest concern for wheat farmers, like Eric Zakarison.
Eric Zakarison: "Our livelihood would most certainly be jeopardized, because right now we depend upon barges to get our wheat from eastern Washington to Portland, Oregon."
Those dams help control barge traffic, making the river safe for commerce. Zakarison prefers keeping the dams, but would let more water through, when it's needed to help salmon.
Eric Zakarison: "You know, I really do disagree with my fellow wheat growers who are somewhat opposed at times to flow augmentation. And I can't understand that. I think if the dams are to remain in place, we have to operate them in such a way that minimizes fish mortality."
Sam Mace: "What Eric is suggesting would be pretty devastating for Lewiston."
Sam Mace says fish protection is not the only argument for taking out the dams. Residents in Lewiston, Idaho are worried that sediment build up behind the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River could lead to flooding in the future. The Army Corps is studying what to do about it.
Judge Redden's decision on endangered salmon is expected in about 30 days. But advocates like Sam Mace, and the wheat grower, Eric Zakarison, don't expect that to settle any of the broader questions. They say the key is to negotiate compromises that last past the current court case - a case that Judge Redden says he doesn't want to see again.
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