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BPA Sued Over 'Salmon Massacre' Water Policy

by Robert McClure
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 6, 2001

Decrying a "salmon massacre" because of the Bonneville Power Administration's conduct during the recent electricity crunch, environmentalists and fishermen yesterday brought legal action to force the agency to go easier on fish in the future.

BPA did not spill enough water through the Columbia River Dams to help juvenile salmon as they headed out to the ocean, violating the Northwest Power Act, according to a suit brought by the Sierra Club, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermens' Associations and other groups.

To bolster their claim, the groups released new estimates showing that survival of young salmon and steelhead migrating to sea through the Columbia was among the worst on record. In the stretch above the Bonneville Dam, just one in 25 young steelhead made it, compared with 10 out of every 25 last year. In the same stretch, fewer than one-third of the chinook salmon migrated successfully, compared with half last year.

Among the casualties were about 1.6 million young salmon hatched in the undammed portion of the Columbia near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation -- meaning one of the region's strongest salmon runs will likely falter, at least temporarily, in coming years.

BPA's decisions to hold back water for electricity production came as salmon populations battered by years of declines are again on the upswing, a cyclical pattern that scientists attribute largely to improving ocean conditions.

"It's a gigantic opportunity that may never come again. The one missing link was water in the river," said Glen Spain, Northwest regional director for the PCFFA, which represents commercial fishermen and joined the suit filed at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. "They chose to put budget considerations ahead of salmon considerations."

BPA spokesman Ed Mosey argued that the agency did the best it could considering the power crunch. It bought some water from farmers and paid power-intensive aluminum factories to go idle. Plus, Mosey pointed out, most of the young salmon no longer float down the river. Instead, most are now gathered up and put into barges, then released after they are past all the fish-killing dams. Water flow does not affect them.

The Northwest Electric Power Planning and Conservation Act of 1980 requires BPA to "adequately protect" fish affected by the dams that provide much of the region's power. And a 1997 court case held that BPA should "place fish and wildlife concerns on equal footing with power production."

Young salmon are not strong swimmers and need water to flow through the river to push them to sea -- which happened naturally before the Columbia was dammed to provide power.

Now, the river's flow is controlled by how much water passes the dams, either through turbines to produce electricity or over spillways to keep the river flowing. Water let loose through spillways does not earn money for BPA; but holding it back to use when electricity demand increases does produce revenue.

The amount of water flowing past the dams is governed by federal plans to rescue some salmon runs from the brink of extinction. But this year, BPA declared a "power emergency." Only about one-fifth the water needed to meet the plans' targets was actually released, the BPA's Mosey said. "Given the water conditions and the power situation in the Northwest ... something had to give," he said.

Bill Arthur, northwest regional director of the Sierra Club, said BPA could have bought more power on the spot market, which he acknowledged could have prompted a rate increase.

The agency also could have taken other steps, such as negotiating to buy water from Idaho farmers who later ended up plowing potatoes into the ground because of a glut on the potato market, Arthur said.

"We've seen a 20-year-plus track record of BPA giving salmon expendable treatment rather than equitable treatment," Arthur said. "The real issue is, what do we do in the future?"

Robert McClure
BPA Sued Over 'Salmon Massacre' Water Policy
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 6, 2001

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