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Dam Spill Plan Pits Salmon Against Power

by Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
The Columbian, June 13, 2004

Federal dam managers are once again walking a tightrope between two Northwest icons: inexpensive electricity and wild salmon.

At issue is a proposal to reduce the amount of water spilled away from turbines in July and August at dams in the Columbia and Snake rivers.

Dam managers say they plan to use that water to generate surplus power to sell in California, shaving 1 or 2 percentage points from wholesale rates charged to Northwest utilities with a negligible effect on young fish migrating to the ocean.

The proposal has touched nerves in part because of its potential effect on the healthiest remaining run of Columbia River basin salmon: fall chinook that spawn in the shadow of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Even though dam managers say they will use a variety of other fish-protection measures to offset the fish killed when the summer spill is cut, they acknowledge uncertainty as to whether the offsets will save as many fish as they anticipate.

Further, critics say the government is claiming credit for some "offsets," such as boosting water released from upstream reservoirs, that would have or should have been taken anyway.

Critics say the proposal is nothing more than the latest instance of dam managers putting power production ahead of salmon protection.

Ears perked up as far away as Alaska when the Bush administration announced its proposal Tuesday.

Gordy Williams, Pacific Salmon Treaty coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said Alaskans have a keen interest in making sure Hanford Reach fall chinook have a smooth trip down to the ocean.

Fall chinook salmon smolts arrive at the mouth of the Columbia River in the late summer of each year, ready to spend the next three to four years of their lives in the Pacific Ocean.

"When they turn right, they spend a significant amount of their lifetime in Alaskan waters, feeding and growing there," Williams said.

Many of those fish land in the nets of local fishermen, providing a significant economic boost to the fishing industry in Southeast Alaska.

Combined with fall chinook from mid-Columbia tributaries such as the Klickitat and Deschutes, dam managers figure reducing summertime spill might translate to a reduction of as many as 29,000 fish by the time they're ready to return to spawn as adults.

The majority of those fish would have spawned in the last free-flowing reach of the Columbia, through Hanford.

"Those are the prized fish in the Buoy 10 fishery and lower river fishery," said Bill Tweit, Columbia River policy director for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. "Most people want to catch a bright, and the majority of the brights come from the Hanford Reach population."

Dam managers have long chafed at spilling water for fish.

Although federal officials acknowledge the practice is marginally safer than the alternative of shooting juvenile fish past turbines, where they can clang off the blades or suffer an effect similar to the bends in deep-sea divers, diverting water over spillways saps a dam's ability to generate electricity.

They want to reduce spill by 39 percent in July and August.

By using the water to drive turbines, dam managers say they can generate electricity that can be sold at market rates to utilities in California and the Southwest. After subtracting the cost of other fish-protection measures, such as boosting the production of fish raised in hatcheries, Bonneville Power Administration officials expect to lower the wholesale rates it charges Northwest utilities by $20 million to $31 million.

"We don't believe we are cutting back on our salmon recovery obligations," BPA Administrator Steve Wright said. "But we found a more cost-effective way to meet those obligations."

Business and utility groups contend Bonneville is not going far enough, noting that federal officials scaled back an earlier proposal to reduce summertime spill by 55 percent. Public utilities in the Northwest have been pressing for cost reductions since the BPA jacked up wholesale rates by 46 percent in the fall of 2001, on the heels of a drought and a West Coast energy crisis fueled by profiteering.

In Clark County, where BPA supplies about half of the energy load, the effect of the proposal won't be realized until Bonneville makes its next six-month rate adjustment in October. "Whether it means a decrease, a smaller increase or the status quo, we don't know at this point," said Mick Shutt, spokesman for Clark Public Utilities.

Army Corps of Engineers and BPA officials propose to stop spilling water during the last 10 days of August at John Day and Ice Harbor dams. They won't spill any water during all of August at The Dalles and Bonneville dams. Dam managers say they will more than offset the effects of the spill reduction through a series of "offsets," most notably an agreement with Grant Public Utilities to stabilize water levels for salmon nests, or redds, in the Hanford reach during the spring.

But conservation and tribal groups argue the government should be doing that, and other measures, anyway.

"We're not gaining anything," said Glen Spain, Northwest regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "It's like running up a down escalator. If they have measures they can use to protect more fish, they need to do that in addition to spill not in lieu of spill."

Tweit, with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the new proposal is an improvement over the one released in March. But he said state officials want more information about the proposed offsets before deciding whether to support the spill reduction.

"We're concerned they're not bringing something new to the table," Tweit said.

Federal officials expect a negligible effect on the only endangered run of salmon affected by the proposal Snake River fall chinook.

Because most of those ocean-bound fish are scooped up and barged below Bonneville Dam, federal officials figure cutting off summer spill for the few smolts remaining in the river translates to a loss of only about a dozen of the 2,500 adults expected back to spawn in three to five years.

Tribal groups say they may challenge the Bush administration's decision in court, arguing many of the offsets amount to actions dam managers would have been taking anyway.

Officials say they'll pay Idaho Power Co. $4 million to drain 100,000 acre feet of water out of Hells Canyon in July, improving survival in the Snake and Columbia by scooting fish along with a cool burst of water out of Brownlee Reservoir.

Idaho Power spokesman Dennis Lopez acknowledged that the company normally begins drafting water out of Brownlee in July. Even so, he said the agreement with Bonneville forces the company to give up the flexibility of holding water to generate electricity later in the year.

"To dedicate 100,000 acre feet of water and say we'll do it, that takes a lot of operational flexibility away from us," he said. "One of the benefits of the hydro system is its flexibility. It is not business as usual by any means."


Previously: Federal dam managers in March proposed to reduce the amount of water spilled for Columbia River basin salmon during July and August by 55 percent, enabling the Bonneville Power Administration to earn another $45 million by selling surplus electricity at market rates to utilities in the Southwest.

What's new: The Bush administration on Tuesday scaled back its spill-reduction plan to 39 percent, netting between $20 million and $31 million to be used to reduce wholesale rates.

What's next: The Army Corps of Engineers and BPA will air the proposal during a meeting from 1 to 4 p.m. Monday at the Embassy Suites Portland Airport, 7900 N.E. 82nd Ave.

Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
Dam Spill Plan Pits Salmon Against Power
The Columbian, June 13, 2004

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