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Coalition Opposes Dam Spills

by Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
The Columbian, February 22, 2004

A new coalition of industrial groups and electric utilities is cranking up the pressure on federal executives to stop diverting water away from dam turbines to help juvenile salmon migrate down the Columbia River in the summer.

The Coalition for Smart Salmon Recovery lends the collective voice of industry groups to a debate that's emerged as a major point of contention in the long-running, and expensive, effort to protect salmon in a river system radically altered by hydroelectric dams.

Federal dam managers contend that summer spilling costs tens of millions of dollars in lost electricity sales but only provides negligible benefits to endangered fish.

The coalition appealed to the governors of four Northwest states on Thursday.

"The energy crisis in 2001 was a painful reminder that high power rates kill jobs," according to a letter signed by representatives of four groups. "As our region continues to struggle through the economic downturn, we cannot afford to spend $77 million a year to save 24 fish."

Environmental and tribal groups are just as adamant that spilling water is the least the region can do for Columbia basin salmon stocks, a dozen of which have been pushed nearly to the brink of extinction.

Spilling water is considered a safer route of passage for salmon smolts than plunging them through dam turbines.

One highly placed salmon adviser challenged the coalition's characterization of the situation.

Larry Cassidy, a Vancouver representative to the four-state Northwest Power and Conservation Council and an adviser to Washington Gov. Gary Locke, disputed the notion that summertime spill provides such a minimal benefit to salmon. Eliminating summertime spill would reduce the return of all stocks of Columbia basin salmon by thousands of fish every year, not just the 24 endangered Snake River fall chinook calculated by the Bonneville Power Administration, he said.

Although the council has already endorsed reductions in spilling water in July and August, Cassidy said it's unfair to focus only on the endangered fish. "If we're going to change summer spill, we need to accurately define the total number of fish -- listed and unlisted -- and then mitigate fairly for those fish lost," he said.

Cassidy and council chairwoman Judi Danielson of Idaho said the eight members of the power planning council have only endorsed reducing the amount of water spilled during July and August, not eliminating the practice altogether.

Any reduction would have to be approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service, which protects imperiled salmon under the Endangered Species Act. The agency's regional administrator, Bob Lohn, has made it clear the agency is likely to endorse only marginal reductions in summertime spilling.

The Coalition for Smart Salmon Recovery, however, contends that for just $1 million to $2 million dam managers could offset the fish killed from cutting off summertime spill.

The money would go toward increasing the bounties paid for fishermen who catch salmon-munching Northern pikeminnows and stabilizing the water levels for salmon nests, or redds, in the Hanford reach of the Columbia during the spring.

The coalition is comprised of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, Public Power Council, Northwest Food Processors Association, Industrial Customers of Northwest Utilities, Pacific Northwest Utilities Conference Committee and the Pacific Northwest Generating Cooperative. A spokeswoman said the newly formed coalition differs from a previous industry group called the Columbia River Alliance for Fish, Commerce and Communities. "We're focused on cooperation, not confrontation, and we're focused on what the science is telling us -- not just ideology," Shauna McReynolds said.

Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
Coalition Opposes Dam Spills
The Columbian, February 22, 2004

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