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Water Shortage may Force BPA to End Fish Aid

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, March 8, 2001

Bonneville believes it has no choice but to halt salmon-saving plans
to avoid rolling blackouts and financial problems

A worsening water shortage in the Northwest has pushed the Bonneville Power Administration into crisis mode, leading it to reject its previously announced cutbacks of salmon-saving measures as not enough to stave off fiscal collapse and rolling blackouts.

Steve Wright, Bonneville's acting administrator, told the Northwest Power Planning Council Wednesday that unless all plans to cut electricity production to help fish are suspended, Bonneville could be at serious risk.

Wright, flanked by the region's leaders of all federal agencies involved in managing Columbia Basin dams, issued no decree that all fish-aiding measures be halted. But he presented figures showing that Bonneville does not believe it has any other choice.

Bonneville now withholds reservoir water for release in spring and summer as an aid to migrating salmon; and it diverts water from power-generating turbines and sends it over spillways, also to aid migration. Both measures would stop under a plan outlined by Wright Wednesday.

"This is a public policy decision of enormous magnitude," Wright said following the meeting. "We're going to have to make this up as we go along."

Wright's warning amounted to a red-alert, and it rocked members of the power council, a consortium of appointees by the governors of Oregon, Washington, Montana and Idaho. Eric Bloch, an Oregon appointee, said a decision to favor power production over fish protection should be made extremely carefully.

"We are engaged in a huge balancing act, and essentially we are working without a net," Bloch said. "If we tip one way we could be looking at rolling blackouts. If we tip the other way we are talking about the decimation of an entire year-class of fish -- fish that we have spent millions and millions of dollars on."

At heart, the problem is lack of water in the Columbia Basin.

Bonneville, which sells electricity generated at 29 federal dams in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana, can normally count on an average of 106.5 million acre feet of water from January to July to power turbines.

Now the forecast for January to July is for 58.6 million acre feet, 45 percent below normal. That's down from a forecast in February of 66.4 million acre feet, and a January forecast of 80.4 million acre feet. An acre-foot is enough water to cover an area about the size of a football field at a depth of one foot.

"As we walk through the year things keep getting worse and worse," Wright said. "We're hitting rock bottom."

Wright said it is possible that less than 52.7 million acre feet of rain and snow could fall in the Columbia Basin this year, an outcome that would make this the driest year since record-keeping began, in 1929.

The federal salmon recovery plan calls for large amounts of water to be held in upstream reservoirs to help salmon make their way to the ocean. The plan also calls for some water to be sent over dam spillways to give salmon a safer way of reaching the ocean.

Those two measures, required under the Endangered Species Act in normal years, cut Bonneville's ability to generate electricity by 1,000 megawatts, enough energy to power a city the size of Seattle.

Bonneville in early February proposed generating more power by holding slightly less water in storage reservoirs and sending slightly more water through turbines.

An alternative would be buying electricity on the wholesale market. But with power prices up tenfold from last year, Bonneville officials say buying that electricity would burn up the agency's cash.

Now, said Wright, even the measures proposed in February are inadequate.

"With the water we project now, we can't make it," Wright said.

He presented data showing that at the lower water forecast, the measures outlined last month could leave Bonneville $100 million in debt by September.

To the power council's surprise, Wright on Wednesday outlined a plan under which the dams would be operated exclusively to generate electricity -- with no water saved or spilled for fish migration. By doing so, Wright said, Bonneville could make it through the end of September still in possession of about $450 million.

The question of damage to protected stocks of fish was left unanswered.

"If we reduce spill we reduce survival," said Brian Brown, hydropower director for the National Marine Fishery Service, the federal agency responsible for saving endangered salmon. "How much we reduce it is something we have not yet estimated."

A power council biologist presented calculations showing that eliminating spills altogether would decrease survival of ocean-bound young salmon and steelhead by 1.6 percent to 6.5 percent, depending on the species.

That would translate into 4,000 fewer of the 100,000 endangered spring chinook expected to travel in the river this year making it to the ocean. Another 900,000 spring chinook are expected to be carried to the ocean this year in barges and trucks.

Some at the meeting, including a consultant with the Harza Engineering Co., told the power council that more fish would survive this summer if as many as possible were carried to the ocean in trucks and barges. With low flows, the water in the Columbia and Snake rivers could be warm and lethal to young salmon, John Pizzimenti said.

Tribal representatives maintain that as much water as possible should be diverted over spillways.

"We know we aren't going to get as much spill as we want, but we've got to spill as much as we can," said Bob Heinith, hydrosystem coordinator for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents for tribes with treaty rights to Columbia River salmon.

"We want to zip them through in a big column of water so they are protected from predators and get to the ocean quickly."

Jonathan Brinckman
Water Shortage may Force BPA to End Fish Aid
The Oregonian, March 8, 2001

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