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Spill Helps Non-Endangered Fish Too

by Sara Patton, NW Energy Coalition
Guest Column, Seattle Post-Intelligencer - March 23, 2004

The March 4 columns by Cyrus Noe ("Dams more valuable than fish") and Shane Scott ("We can have salmon and jobs") argue that consumers are suffering because water is spilled at dams in a misguided, expensive and futile attempt to aid salmon recovery. The authors are wrong about summer spill's effects on bill payers and endangered fish.

To begin with, "$77 million to save 24 fish" makes a good sound bite but it falls apart under scrutiny. Spill assists non-endangered fish as well. Scott admits that curtailing spill would kill an additional 19,000 non-listed salmon, which represents the low end of a Bonneville Power Administration analysis that's been rejected by Washington, Oregon and federal fish and wildlife agencies, Columbia Basin tribes and others. BPA's high-end mortality estimate is 38,000, and tribal scientists' estimates are significantly higher.

Mortality estimates aside, BPA cannot blame its fiscal problems on trying to keep fish alive.

To achieve the $77 million expense figure, the agency inappropriately counts as a "cost" potential electricity generation lost due to spill. In fact, cutting summer spill will increase BPA's annual generation no more than 2.4 percent per year, with the additional power shipped to California to help run air conditioners. Residential customers would save no more than seven to 66 cents per month.

BPA does not "charge" for other generation-reducing uses of the Columbia and Snake rivers, such as water withdrawals for irrigation or operation of locks. The truth is that BPA owns neither the water used to grow crops nor that needed for salmon migration.

BPA does use the salmon program as a slush fund to use in tough times, most notoriously in the "energy crisis" year of 2001 when it eliminated spill and killed tens of thousands of fish. BPA -- and its customers -- took a huge financial hit not because the agency spent money to save fish but because it bought high-priced power to meet the demand for more than 3,000 megawatts of electricity it could not produce.

The future of the Northwest fishing economy hinges on salmon recovery. Every Snake River salmon that survives the hydro system takes pressure off lower river fisheries, extends fishing seasons and revs the economic engine of recreational and commercial fisheries. A healthy salmon-fishing season will grow the Northwest economy by much more than $77 million a year.

And how would we assist salmon migration, if not through spill? Increasing Northern Pikeminnow harvests, as Scott suggests, is of "very little real value," according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Other proposed offsets, says Oregon's Department of Fish and Wildlife, "would provide either marginal or uncertain benefits." v Eliminating spill would increase reliance on such failed and costly efforts as trucking and barging juvenile salmon around the dams. Recent strong salmon returns are almost entirely because of ocean conditions, and wild salmon returns have never reached -- for even one year -- the level that scientists say is needed for eight consecutive years to achieve recovery.

Short of dam removal, increased spill and flow are the best strategies for averting salmon extinction. Washington's Department of Fish and Wildlife says "the value of spill as the safest means of juvenile salmon passage past dams is essentially undisputed in the region."

When NOAA Fisheries wrote the "aggressive non-breach" recovery plan, it assumed water would be spilled in the spring and summer to aid young migrating salmon. In December 2003, NOAA Fisheries said the plan's "expectations are not being met." It is disingenuous to now suggest there are cheaper ways than spill to help fish.

Measures as fundamental as spill should not be cut when federal agencies aren't even approaching the goals of their own compromise plan.

bluefish adds from "Restoring the Lower Snake River", Oregon Natural Resources Council:

Foregone Hydropower from Commercial Navigation Lock Flush on the Lower Snake alone
3140.5 Lock flushes with Lost Water
412,962 acre-feet ow water diverted
35,390,000 Foregone kWh

Foregone Hydropower from Recreational Navigation Lock Flush on the Lower Snake alone
1353 Lock flushes with Lost Water
177,519 acre-feet ow water diverted
15,170,000 Foregone kWh

Electric power foregone to irrigation on the Lower Snake alone
Irrigators pump about 100,000 acre-feet of water per year from Ice Harbor reservoir.
Assuming 83.5 kWh/acre-foot (from flowpowr.htm for Ice Harbor) this equates to
8,350,000 Foregone kWh
Some of the diverted water finds its way back into the river in return flows. But a great deal, some 81,268 acre-feet, does not. It evaporates or transpires through the crops. This amount of water is lost to power generation not just at Ice Harbor but at all downstream power generating stations.
Assuming 259 kWh/acre-foot (from flowpowr.htm for 4 downstream Columbia Dams) this equates to
21,000,000 Foregone kWh

From the Lower Snake alone (not including navigation and irrigation on the Columbia River)
Foregone Hydropower from Recreational & Commercial Navigation Lock Flush
79,910,000 Foregone kWh
$1,300,000 value of foregone power assuming $0.016 per kWh (from ONRC report)
$2,000,000 value of foregone power assuming $0.025 per kWh (bluefish calculation)

Sara Patton is executive director of the NW Energy Coalition based in Seattle.
Spill Helps Non-Endangered Fish Too
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 23, 2004

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