BPA's Extra Power Generation Helps Chum
by Jonathan Brinckman
Releasing water now means there might not be enough later to help other species spawn
The West's deepening power crisis could be a boon to one salmon species -- but at the expense of several others.
Responding to skyrocketing electricity prices, the Bonneville Power Administration has cranked up power generation at Columbia River Basin dams, releasing extra water from enormous storage reservoirs in Eastern Washington, Idaho and Montana.
One immediate beneficiary are Columbia River chum salmon, a once abundant species that was added to the federal endangered species list in 1999. Several hundred chum have built nests, called redds, in gravel beds downriver from Bonneville Dam.
If the BPA had not stepped up power production, it's likely the flows would be so low now that redds would be left high and dry, the eggs dead, biologists said.
"The chum situation may be the only saving grace to this whole bad situation," said Bob Rees, a Tillamook fishing guide who admires chum for their bright spawning colors and fierce fighting ability.
But other Columbia Basin salmon could pay the price.
The water released to generate power -- and cover the chum's redds -- normally would be held in the reservoirs until spring and summer. Under provisions of the federal salmon recovery plan, the water then would be released to swell the Columbia and Snake rivers and help flush toward the ocean millions of young chinook, sockeye, coho and steelhead that emerge from inland spawning grounds.
This year is different. Federal officials who manage the Columbia Basin hydrosystem decided last month to make it a higher priority to keep the chum redds underwater than to keep the reservoirs full.
The reasons were twofold, said Paul Wagner, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees Columbia River salmon recovery programs:
"We aren't going to get complete reservoir refill this year," Wagner said. "Sacrificing all those redds for an outcome that is not achievable anyway we don't believe is the best decision."
BPA officials are happy to oblige because keeping chum redds covered lets them generate power that the agency would otherwise have to buy on the wholesale market at exorbitant prices.
"We're a chum of the chum," Stephen Wright, acting BPA administrator, joked last month.
In three of four years, BPA officials say, enough rain and snow falls in the Columbia Basin to both keep chum redds covered and to fill reservoirs. This year, however, is the third driest since record-keeping began in 1929.
The Columbia River once teemed with chum. Annual runs in the first half of the century topped 1 million -- about the total for all salmon species in recent years. In 1942, 425,500 chum were caught in the Columbia, the highest total recorded.
Runs declined sharply in the 1950s, and chum never bounced back. About 2,000 chum now return to the Columbia and its tributaries each year: 1,600 to Grays River in Western Washington and the rest to the Bonneville Dam area.
Biologists think that a key reason chum have not recovered is that the fish are finicky about where they spawn. They prefer gravel beds where ground water emerges from below the surface.
Such areas have disappeared as levees have been built along the Columbia and urban development has reduced ground water recharging, said Joe Hymer, a biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. "These fish are right on the edge now. If we lose them, it shows something is wrong with the Columbia River."
When male chum are ready to spawn, they develop hooked jaws and fierce-looking teeth, which they use to keep other males from redds they have fertilized. They are known as dog salmon because of their teeth and because they traditionally were fed to sled dogs in Alaska.
The chum population in the Columbia below Bonneville Dam is more important than usual this year, Hymer and other biologists said. That's because lack of rain this fall dried up nearby streams that also are normally used by spawning fish.
"I'm extremely worried," said Howard Schaller, a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "The main Columbia is an extremely important component of recovery for chum this year."
Opposition to decision
Still, not everyone is happy about the decision to favor chum.
Bob Heinith, hydrosystem coordinator for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said every drop of water possible should be held in reservoirs to boost spring and summer river flows. Keeping the chum redds underwater "is just a convenient excuse for power generation," Heinith said.
He's angry that government biologists have backed the National Marine Fisheries Service in its decision to favor chum. "It's amazing to us that our co-managers -- particularly the Fish and Wildlife Service -- continue to stump for the chum in what is obviously a disaster water year," Heinith said. "We're just dumbfounded."
Frank L. Cassidy, chairman of the Northwest Power Planning Council, the four-state regional council responsible for balancing energy production with fish and wildlife conservation, criticized the decision to favor chum. The species that need spring and summer flows, particularly chinook and steelhead, are more important to the Northwest, Cassidy said.
"It would be smart to save water and resources for the species that show the most public benefit," he said. "Chum salmon are not one of those."
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