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Power Crunch Threatening Salmon

by V. Dion Haynes, staff writer
Chicago Tribune, March 5, 2001

Hydroelectric Needs in California, Northwest Imperil Water Supply

SEATTLE -- The Pacific Northwest's once-mighty salmon, already constricted from their wild, free-flowing habitat by a series of dams, are facing a new threat: California's energy crisis.

The electricity crunch is not only squeezing Northwest power customers with tight supplies and high prices, but could also jeopardize long-standing efforts in the region to restore the population of endangered salmon in the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

Compounding the energy crisis is a drought, the second worst in 70 years, that has produced only half the amount of rain and snowfall needed to fully generate enough hydropower to meet the region's electricity demand.

Normally, the Northwest buys electricity from California in the winter and sells it back in the summer when demand in the nation's most populous state reaches its peak. This year the region has been ordered by a federal agency to sell power to California, forcing hydropower plants to use water normally stored for the spring salmon runs.

Juvenile salmon need high flows and turbid waters to speed them to the ocean and protect them from predators. As a result of the need to generate more power this winter, some environmentalists are predicting that the mortality rate of juvenile salmon en route to the ocean could reach 95 percent, helping reinforce an ongoing campaign to dismantle four dams often blamed for harming fish.

On one side of the faceoff are California power users and Northwest electricity utilities fighting to keep the lights from going out. On the other side are environmentalists seeking to save a diminishing species and several Indian tribes struggling to maintain their cultural traditions.

"We're taking a beating for California," said Jay Minthorn, 64, chairman of the Fish and Wildlife Committee of the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation, based near Pendleton, Ore.

"Conservation is going to have to be the word for California [power users] so that they can meet their own needs," he said. "One of the first contracts the U.S. signed when it became a nation was to protect our fishing rights. The treaties are supposed to protect our rights to the salmon for generations to come--and we expect them to live up to it."

California officials, who have been grappling with power emergencies and rolling blackouts all winter stemming from their 5-year-old electricity deregulation plan, disagree with the assessment that the Golden State is to blame for the Northwest's salmon woes.

Environmentalists and American Indians would "like to put the onus on California; that is not fair or reasonable," said Jim Spagnole, spokesman for the California Environmental Protection Agency.

"This is a multifaceted problem to which there is no one answer," he said. "The solutions call on all of us in the West to conserve more energy, generate more energy and diversify . . . beyond hydropower."

At the center of the Northwest power dispute is the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal entity that manages hydropower operations and salmon restoration on the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

In response to the energy crisis this winter, the Bonneville administration at least eight times invoked an emergency provision of the Endangered Species Act that allows it to suspend federal orders for storing water for spring and summer salmon runs.

The agency used the water to extend operations of hydropower plants because it could no longer afford to buy electricity on the spot market. Prices on the spot market have been wildly inflated because of California's demands.

"If we deplete the water for the fish, it could be a very severe situation for juvenile [salmon] still in the river," said Ed Mosey, spokesman for the Bonneville Power Administration.

"Our challenge is to manage the rivers through this power crisis to maximize the health of the fish and to meet our obligations [to power users]," he said. "Can we promise we'll be able to do both? If we have a hot, dry summer the situation could be hard for the fish and human beings."

Like California, the Pacific Northwest has experienced a population surge in the last decade. Demand for power rose by 12,000 megawatts--equivalent approximately to power generated for 12 Seattles--but supply increased by only one-quarter of that amount.

With 29 federal dams in the region, the Pacific Northwest has the cheapest power in the nation.

But hydropower makes up 70 percent of the region's sources for electricity, and consumers now are seeing the downside. Utility officials are building several wind farms and gas-powered plants to diversify its electricity sources.

They are not expected to go online until 2004 at the earliest. And so environmentalists are viewing the situation with the salmon as a long-term crisis.

"This is something we'll probably have to contend with for three years," said Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Commission, which represents four tribes.

"In three years you're looking at a whole life cycle of fish," he said. If utility officials continue to divert water from the salmon project to the hydropower plants, he added, "you're making a willful decision to extinct the fish."

For 25 years the federal government has spent billions of dollars to restore the population of sockeye and chinook salmon on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, which run through Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The salmon have been hampered by construction of dams, which tamed the rivers and made it more difficult for fish to travel to and from the ocean.

Concern about the salmon prompted environmentalists and American Indians several years ago to press the federal government to dismantle four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington state.

The National Marine Fisheries Service postponed a decision on the dams for at least three years. In the meantime, it ordered the Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies to improve salmon habitat and passages through the dams by upgrading spawning streams, restoring estuaries and reducing population of predatory species.

The plan is expected to cost $1 billion a year, significantly more than the $800 million estimated one-time cost of breaching the four dams.

Scott Bosse, conservation scientist at Idaho Rivers United, said the order requires periodic monitoring at three-, five- and eight-year intervals. If the Marine Fisheries Service determines during any of those checkpoints that the plan is not being followed or that salmon are in dire straits, he said, the dam breaching proposal would move to the front burner.

The issue is expected to spark a showdown between environmentalists and the Bush administration, which opposes the plan.

"All indicators are that they will not fully fund the [$1 billion a year] recovery plan. In essence, the Bush administration could be greasing the skids for dam removal by not funding this plan," Bosse said.

"The first checkpoint is in 2003, the year that juvenile fish [that would be] killed this year are scheduled to begin returning as adults," he added. "If the plan is not implemented, the fisheries service could write a new recovery plan that involves dam removal."

V. Dion Haynes, staff writer
Power Crunch Threatening Salmon
Chicago Tribune, March 5, 2001

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