BPA Starts Limited Spill of Columbia
by Jonathan Brinckman
The release is about one-third of normal for May, the month when the number of fish heading downstream reaches its peak
The Bonneville Power Administration late Wednesday ordered the opening of spillways at two federal dams, providing a safer way for young salmon to reach the sea but sacrificing the production of some electricity at a time of uncertain power supply.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates eight federal dams on the lower Snake and Columbia rivers, opened up spillways at Bonneville and The Dalles dams at 6 p.m., sending torrents of water over the dams. Corps officials said they would continue spilling water for about three weeks.
Until now, the BPA had said water supplies were too tight -- and electricity generation too diminished as a result -- for any water to be spilled over dams this spring. The federal salmon recovery plan, which says millions of gallons should be sent over spillways in spring and summer, includes a provision that lets the BPA declare a power emergency and avoid spilling. The agency has twice declared the emergency this spring.
Spillways in most years are opened at all eight dams during the spring and summer, when millions of juvenile salmon and steelhead are traveling downstream. The BPA ordered limited spilling, about one third of what is normally sent over spillways in May, after federal biologists reported that the action would significantly help imperiled salmon and steelhead.
May is the peak of the outward migration, with more young fish traveling down the Columbia than any other month.
The BPA had hoped to begin limited spilling last week after the forecast showed slightly more water than expected. It proposed a deal in which spilling would begin immediately if a mid-Columbia utility promised to produce extra electricity this summer if the water forecast deteriorated.
The Grant County Public Utility would generate the additional power by halting spilling at Priest Rapids and Wanapum dams, in central Washington. That plan, though, must be approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Bonneville shelved the plan after it was opposed by tribes and the state of Montana.
Tribes said they did not like the idea of trading spilling at one dam for spilling at another and said the BPA should be spilling water without making any deals. Montana representatives said they were opposed to any spilling this year with water supplies so tight.
The plan was supported by the states of Idaho and Washington and the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency in charge of threatened and endangered salmon.
Steve Wright, the BPA's acting administrator, said Wednesday that he hoped the Grant County plan would be approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, despite opposition.
"We had to ensure the reliability of the Northwest's power supply and the financial viability of the agency (the BPA)." Wright said. "The proposed deal with Grant PUD should allow limited spill now without leaving the system worse off in terms of reliability."
Tribal leaders said they are happy that water is being spilled for salmon. But they think that Grant should not be allowed to cut off its spilling later this year if water supplies run low.
"We support a spill program as the principal means of protecting fish," said Don Sampson, the executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents four tribes with treaty rights to salmon and steelhead. "We have not and do not support the swap."
Eric Bloch, an Oregon representative, said he was glad spilling had started.
"It's the right thing to do," Bloch said. "There are still plenty of fish in the river that will benefit from this spill."
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