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Commentaries and editorials

Idaho and Montana Seek
Reduced Water Spills for Columbia Salmon

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, October 16, 2002

Idaho and Montana want to dial back on efforts to restore Columbia River salmon, arguing that releases of water into rivers each spring -- as required by the U.S. government -- hurts irrigators, recreational boaters and electricity consumers while offering no proven aid to migrating salmon.

The two states this week are seeking to modify recommendations that the Northwest Power Planning Council will make to the U.S. government, which controls river flows throughout the Columbia Basin.

Montana, among several proposals, wants to sharply cut back on the amount of water that is sent over dam spillways, which help young fish make it to the sea, instead of through salmon-killing turbines. That water would be sent through turbines to increase power production.

Oregon opposes the efforts. It wants more water, not less, released into the Columbia and Snake rivers to help young salmon get past federal dams each spring and summer.

The stakes in this debate, carried out Tuesday and today at a council meeting in Spokane, are high. Any changes in policy will affect a multibillion-dollar salmon recovery effort ordered and managed by the federal government.

Right now, the National Marine Fisheries Service enforces strict flow requirements that limit the amount of electricity that can be generated by the federal dams. Without such requirements, the power system's output could rise by about 10 percent -- or 1,250 megawatts, enough electricity for nearly 800,000 homes. The rules also ban anyone from drawing additional water out of the Columbia and Snake rivers, including industries, municipalities and farmers.

The new proposals by Idaho and Montana -- mainly, to withhold more river water for irrigation and recreation -- are strongly supported by irrigators and representatives of electricity users, who say they would bring sanity to a salmon recovery program whose results are debatable. Keeping more water in Montana also would aid fish living in that state's rivers and reservoirs, according to John Hines, a Montana representative to the council.

"These changes won't have measurable impact on salmon and steelhead and will help local economies," said Darryll Olsen, a representative of irrigators in eastern Oregon, eastern Washington and Idaho. "All I see the council doing is making corrections that will minimize the costs of salmon recovery."

Conservationists, tribes and Oregon reject the argument. They call increasing the flow of the Columbia and Snake rivers and spilling water over dams the two most effective ways of aiding salmon.

"We in Oregon are not going to support anything that is not sufficiently protective of fish," said Eric Bloch, one of Gov. John Kitzhaber's two appointees to the council.

"We're worried that the council is headed for a significant backward leap, and we will do all we can to oppose them, including going to court," said Pat Ford, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon.

Justin Gould, a member of the Nez Perce Tribe and chairman of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, said: "These proposals are a not-so-subtle effort to grab more of the river for provincial interests and should never have made it this far."

The state of Washington, the fourth of four states represented on the council, was undecided as of Tuesday.

A council decision, due late this year or early next, cannot directly rewrite river rules. The operation of federal dams is governed by the fisheries service, which is required by the federal Endangered Species Act to protect listed salmon and steelhead -- and that gives the fisheries service the last word.

But a council position that is widely astray from U.S. policy may weaken that policy by making it more vulnerable in court, experts agree.

Hines, a Montana representative on the council, plainly argued that a revision in the council's recommendations might persuade the federal government to change its policies. "My hope is that if the council plan can show that good science and good support for a different way of operating the (hydropower) system, the National Marine Fisheries Service will take that into account," Hines said.

Bob Lohn, regional director of the National Marine Fisheries Service and the top overseer of salmon recovery, said that while his agency had no plan to revise its rules, it was watching the council's actions closely.

"A council decision would be of great interest because it represents regional consensus, additional scientific information and a balance of interests that are more than just salmon," Lohn said.

Washington was watching, too.

"We're not locked into any particular perspective," said Bob Nichols, natural resource adviser to Washington Gov. Gary Locke. "We figure we have some time to sort through this."

Related Pages:
Power Council Plan Calls for Releasing Less Water for Fishby Jonathan Brinckman, The Oregonian, 10/19/2
Power Council Votes on Proposals for Changing Mainstem Operations by Bill Rudolph, NW Fishletter, 10/22/2
Council Proposes Changes to Mainstem Operations by Barry Espenson, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 10/18/2
BPA Mid-Columbia Customers Favor Montana/Idaho Plan by Mike O'Bryant, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 10/18/2
Dam Operators Propose Changes in Fish Spill by Mike O'Bryant, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 10/25/2

Jonathan Brinckman
Idaho and Montana Seek Reduced Water Spills for Columbia Salmon
The Oregonian, October 16, 2002

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