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Salmon Advocates Say Spills Succeeded

by Joe Rojas-Burke, Oregonian staff
The Oregonian, September 12, 2005

Power companies say high fish survival rates could be achieved
at less expense to ratepayers than raising Snake River flows

Heavy releases of Snake River flows over dams this summer cost Northwest ratepayers close to $80 million, but researchers reported Monday that the court-ordered measure appears to have greatly improved survival of migrating salmon.

The preliminary findings by the Portland-based Fish Passage Center refute the assertions of industry groups and federal dam operators that the untested bulk spilling of river flows in July and August could harm salmon. But the findings have not settled the fierce debate over the costs and benefits of spilling river flows to help fish.

"There is a valid question about whether that is the best use of resources for fish and for power customers," said Scott Corwin, an executive with PNGC Power, a cooperative representing 15 electric utilities.

Power and industry groups maintain that transporting young salmon by barge and truck makes the most sense during drought years, rather than leaving fish exposed to warm, sluggish water and predatory fish and birds. Federal agencies had planned to collect as many fish as possible and transport them downriver by truck and barge. But in June, a U.S. district judge in Portland ordered the government to comply with salmon advocates' request for spilling of river water over four dams in July and August. Water spilled over dams helps speed juvenile salmon downriver. But it can't be used to generate electricity and so accrues a cost in foregone energy sales by the federal Bonneville Power Administration.

Researchers with the Fish Passage Center analyzed the survival of young salmon implanted with PIT tags that signal detectors at dams along the river. Researchers compared fish survival before and after the court-ordered spill this year, and also compared this year's survival rates with previous years back to 2001.

Survival was highest among salmon migrating during the spill period this year: 74 percent compared with 29 percent to 51 percent during comparable periods since 2001. Unlike previous years in which survival decreased or remained flat as the summer wore on, this year's late migrants fared significantly better than fish passing before spilling began.

"Keep in mind, it's preliminary. There's a lot more to learn," said Michele DeHart, manager of the Fish Passage Center, an independent research center supported by funds from Bonneville Power Administration. "But it looks like that with the conditions we had for passage this year, we got faster travel times and we got better survival."

The biggest open question, DeHart said, is how the fish numbers hold up as adults returning from years at sea.

"Even the most professional pessimist would have to sit and take note of these numbers," said Charles Hudson, a spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. The four tribes represented by the commission joined the lawsuit seeking the spill order.

Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association and a member of Fish Passage Center's oversight board, said the results disprove opponents' predictions of a lack of benefit and of extreme costs. "We did it, the sky didn't fall, the lights didn't go out. Fish benefited clearly, and rates went down," she said, referring to BPA's recent announcement of a 1.6 percent rate decrease for next year.

Critics said the results show little. Shane Scott, a fish biologist employed by the Public Power Council, said transporting Snake River chinook by barge or trucks provides the highest survival rate: 98 percent. Scott also said that a majority of the fall chinook this year moved out of the Snake River before the court-ordered spill began, so that the program benefited at most 10 percent of the fish while costing ratepayers tens of millions of dollars.

A BPA spokesman, Mike Hansen, said the agency has not calculated the final cost of foregone revenues, but he said officials estimate it will fall at the high end of the $57 million to $81 million range. Hansen said that without the costs of spill, the agency could have reduced wholesale rates even further.

An official with the National Marine Fisheries Service said the results look promising but cautioned that the picture could change significantly after complete analysis.

"Not to be a wet blanket, but these numbers are fuzzy numbers -- a careful scientist would not want to put too much weight on them," said Brian Gorman, a spokesman. "The final estimate could be much higher or much lower in reality."

The Fisheries Service, the federal agency responsible for threatened and endangered salmon, had endorsed a plan to collect most of the summer-migrating Snake River salmon and transport them by barge and truck past the dams and warned that spilling water over dams could cause more harm.

Joe Rojas-Burke
Salmon Advocates Say Spills Succeeded
The Oregonian, September 12, 2005

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