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Commentaries and editorials

Balance of Power -- and Fish

by Editors
The Oregonian, March 9, 2001

Second worst water year puts pressure
on the Columbia River system's salmon runs and power generation

After years of efforts and a more than $3 billion investment, Northwest salmon recovery is being jeopardized by the second worst water runoff prediction in 70 years. The drought has given the Bonneville Power Administration the thankless job of balancing energy needs against salmon runs.

All outlooks are for this to be a tough year for energy and fish. What the region needs is rain and lots of it.

Yet, there's a chance that despite the gloomy forecasts of clear weather, the region may squeak by without greatly damaging fish runs or enduring rolling blackouts. With better water and energy conservation, barging fish past the dams, and a lot of luck, the region could pull through without too much bruising.

But it will call for every element to slip perfectly into place.

Since winter began, the forecasts for the Columbia Basin water system have worsened monthly. During an average year, the system produces 106 million acre feet of water from January to July to power the 29 federal dams in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana.

In February, the forecast for water flow had fallen to 66.4 million acre feet from 80.4 million acre feet in January. The latest forecast is 58.6 million acre feet, a 45 percent deficit from normal flows. Steve Wright, BPA administrator, says we could be looking at the driest year since 1929.

That doesn't give the BPA any good choices. It is obligated to operate as a reliable power producer, to operate in a fiscally prudent manner and to manage the water system for fish survival.

But in the apparent conflict between power and fish, the water flows may have fallen so far that the logical solution, barging the fish runs around the dams, may be better for the fish and keep the lights on.

That's because with so little water, there isn't much to move through the Columbia system. With low and slow flows, migrating juvenile salmon are already in danger, fish biologists say.

As John Harrison, spokesman for the Northwest Power Planning Council, describes the situation, "We can anticpate that the river is slow in a dry year, and just a few days of warm weather can be adverse for juvenile fish migrating out to the ocean."

The council, which heard the warning from the BPA on Wednesday, is required by the Northwest Power Act to strike a balance between fish and power. It hasn't yet taken a position on spills vs. barging fish. But it does see this shaping up as a process that must be carefully evaluated at every step.

"We're not convinced the fish do better in the river than in the barges, or that they do better in the barges than in the river," says Harrison. "But when the river heats up, anything over 68 degrees is lethal."

The other piece of the energy and fish equation is conservation, not only of energy but water. Natural resource managers have been meeting to determine whether to recommend that Gov. John Kitzhaber declare a drought emergency.

Considering that much of what is happening on the Columbia this year is beyond control, such a declaration may be the prudent way to go. Along with conservation and a closer look at things like fish-harvest levels, we ought to be working hard on the few things we can control.

Balance of Power -- and Fish
The Oregonian, March 9, 2001

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