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Commentaries and editorials

More Power and Fish?

by Editors
Seattle Times - December 13, 2002

The burden is heaviest on the Northwest Power Planning Council to prove that its proposal to produce more power with Columbia River system dams and help upriver fish won't hurt downriver salmon-recovery efforts.

With two representatives each from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana, the council has proposed tinkering with practices that increase river flow in the spring and summer to help the young salmon in their journey to the ocean. The proposal includes relaxing the deadline when reservoirs must be filled and extending water releases into the early fall.

The council believes the change would make the hydropower system more flexible so it could produce more power for the Bonneville Power Administration in the high-demand winter months, generating more revenues for its fish-enhancement programs.

The proposal was initiated by Montana and upstream tribes concerned that the current flow augmentation practices are hurting resident upstream species, such as bull trout and white sturgeon.

But others are skeptical. Washington and Oregon state fisheries managers aren't convinced the changes wouldn't hurt ocean-bound salmon and steelhead runs. They point to the reduced migration success during the recent energy crisis when more water was run through dam turbines to generate more power. The full effects won't be established until those salmon return from the ocean near the end of their life cycles.

Downstream fisheries managers would rather find other sources of water to achieve the same benefits for hydropower system flexibility and Montana's resident fish, possibly more storage or water purchases from Canada.

Council representatives argue that the biological benefits for spring flow augmentation have not been "well-documented." Nevertheless, the flow rules are ingrained in the National Marine Fisheries Service's biological opinion that governs river system operations.

Bob Lohn, NMFS' Northwest director, says the agency might consider altering its opinion if a regional consensus emerges.

That's the trick, because there is much uncertainty. The power council needs to do more than be dismissive of the benefits of existing standards. Rather, it needs to build regional consensus with more evidence that the changes won't send progress on salmon recovery downstream.

More Power and Fish?
Seattle Times Company, Dectember 13, 2001

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