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Commentaries and editorials

Balance Needed on Spill Plan

by Editors
The Oregonian, July 24, 2004

Compared with losing millions in power sales,
the potential to save a few endangered salmon doesn't jibe

As is often the case these days, a federal judge will end up deciding whether the chance of harming about two dozen endangered salmon is worth $18 million to $28 million in lost power sales to Northwest electricity ratepayers.

That's because conservation groups, Native American tribes and, now, the state of Oregon have gone to court to prevent the Bonneville Power Administration from boosting power production by running more water through some of its hydroelectric turbines in Columbia River dams next month. The plaintiffs argue that the BPA plan falls short of the standards for salmon protection set by the Endangered Species Act. But it's not a settled question, despite the arguments offered on these pages Thursday by Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

The BPA and the National Marine Fisheries Service see the electricity generation plan as a moderate end-of-the-salmon-run experiment that would both earn money and create knowledge about the dams' impact on endangered salmon. The governor and co-plaintiffs see it as dangerous to fish, although it's none too clear from the governor's arguments which fish we are talking about.

We ought to be talking about the endangered ones, the threatened fall chinook whose run downriver to the sea is largely finished by August. The best scientific models available suggest that running the power turbines in August, as BPA proposes, would kill about two dozen endangered fish.

The BPA proposes to mitigate this through measures such as more aggressive predator control, which federal scientists believe would more than offset the losses of threatened salmon. The federal fisheries service has concluded that the BPA plan would result in no net harm to endangered salmon.

In his argument, Gov. Kulongoski says the BPA turbines would kill as many as 500,000 juvenile fish, resulting in a return of 20,000 fewer adults to spawn. While that may be true, the fish he mentions are not threatened species. They should not be considered by Federal District Judge James Redden, when he considers the case of the state and its co-plaintiffs, because the endangered-species law doesn't apply to them.

The governor and others may be worried that running the turbines in August and taking mitigation steps opens the door for broader mitigation efforts, such as curtailing sport fishing. Hiding that argument under the banner of endangered species misstates the question, and ignores the fact that a good portion of the fish the governor is worrying about will be killed anyway, by fishing.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife disagrees with the fisheries service's scientific conclusions about the impact on endangered salmon, but this argument cannot be fairly construed as the voracious Bush administration industrialists sweeping aside the more-knowledgeable local scientists. Other agencies in other Northwest states side with the feds, as do the governors of the other Northwest states.

Nobody in this dispute has a lock on the truth. But we've argued here before that efforts to save salmon need to be subject to at least a modest level of cost-benefit analysis. In this case, the benefit of doing it the way Oregon, the conservationists and the tribes want to do it is unclear. The cost, however -- in the neighborhood of $1 million per saved endangered salmon -- is clear, and a persuasive argument against the governor's approach.

Balance Needed on Spill Plan
The Oregonian, July 24, 2004

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