the film
Commentaries and editorials

Resurgent Northwest Salmon Show
Dam 'Spill' is Better than Barging

by Rocky Barker
Idaho Statesman, December 5, 2010

Salmon success recasts debate

Lorri Bodi's call in the 1990s for federal dam managers to divert Columbia River flows away from hydroelectric turbines to aid endangered salmon was met by anger and an army of scientists who said that collecting the fish and barging them around dams was a better way.

Bodi worked for American Rivers then, and was among the salmon advocates fighting the federal government's efforts to keep power production up by using a barging system that allowed turbines to run at full capacity. Today, Bodi works for the Bonneville Power Administration, the agency that markets the power from federal dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers and has long fought the idea of "spilling" water over the dams and away from deadly turbines.

Now BPA and other federal dam and fish agencies agree that spilling water most of the year has contributed to the resurgence of salmon and steelhead over the past decade.

It's a dramatic shift in the salmon and dam debate that has raged in the Northwest for 30 years.

The argument now focuses on how much barging the dam managers can get away with, and whether spill is the best strategy overall for all salmon and steelhead species.

Federal agencies still argue for barging the salmon and steelhead around the dams for two weeks in May, most of August and other times when river flows are very low due to drought. They say special conditions make barging more effective at these times when power managers also want to increase power production.

"We used to have a big huge debate; now we have a much narrower debate," said Bodi, BPA acting vice president for environment, fish and wildlife.

Environmentalists, fishermen, Indian tribes and the state of Oregon -- a coalition that challenged the federal government's salmon plan in court for a decade -- support the current court-ordered spill that runs through the March-to- September migration season.

In addition to the support they've gotten from U.S. District Judge James Redden, an Independent Science Advisory Board convened by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council backed the season-long spill last spring.

Redden is expected to decide by next March whether the federal government's latest salmon and dam plan is legally and scientifically adequate. Spill remains a central issue.

"They fought this kicking and screaming," said Nicole Cordan, policy director for the group Save our Wild Salmon. "They are still kicking and screaming."


The reason federal agencies have changed is that the scientific consensus has changed. National Marine Fisheries Service scientists argued a decade ago that juvenile salmon collected at the dams and barged downriver to below the first dam on the Columbia survived as well or better than salmon and steelhead that migrated in the river.

State and tribal biologists argued that salmon that were collected and barged died at a higher rate after the trip -- "delayed mortality" -- than those that migrated in the river.

About 1.7 million salmon and steelhead returned to the Columbia Basin this year, compared to fewer than 450,000 in 1995. That has allowed biologists to increase the number of computer-tagged fish and help document that the delayed mortality is tied to the barging "bypass" system. That has strengthened the case for spilling fish rather than collecting and barging.

The improved salmon returns also persuaded BPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dams, to invest in "surface passage routes," or fish slides, that guide salmon through the spillways with less water and less trauma to the fish.

Other benefits of the fish slides: They leave more water for power production and speed the fish's trip through the dams.

A report released last week by the Fish Passage Center, an independent group that tracks how salmon fare through the dams, documented that spill has improved salmon survival as well as reduced the overall time it takes the fish to travel to the Pacific.

The evidence is strong that the river is a safer place for salmon today, says Ritchie Graves, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, the arm of NOAA responsible for protecting endangered salmon and steelhead.

"We would say it's not just about spill, it's about the surface passage routes, too," Graves said.


When Bodi left the environmental group and joined BPA -- essentially going over to the other side of the salmon debate in 1999 -- she took with her the idea of setting performance standards based on research.

"That idea of biological performance standards using spill (helps) you know what passage route and amount of spill gave you the most survival," Bodi said.

The research showed that spilling water over the dams in the early spring clearly helped all of the 13 endangered salmon species migrate to the Pacific. The performance standards allowed the agencies to tweak the system at each dam to get the best passage, Bodi said.

But the scientific consensus about the benefits of spill ends when it comes to the steelhead migration in May; steelhead in this run actually showed better survival when they were barged. That has prompted NOAA to push to stop spilling and maximize barging of the fish for two weeks, which coincidentally produces lots of power for BPA.

BPA officials say the science, not power production, is driving the May barging proposal.

Biologists with the salmon coalition argue that the benefits for steelhead do not justify the negative effects of barging on spring-summer chinook and sockeye salmon. The Independent Science Advisory Board weighed in against stopping spill last spring.

Despite their differences, both sides of the scientific debate say the Snake and Columbia rivers are safer places for salmon today than they were in the 1990s. With ideal conditions for salmon in the Pacific -- colder temperatures that keep predator numbers down and food sources up -- salmon have flourished in recent years.


Both sides also agree that the real test of salmon survival in the rivers will come when ocean conditions turn, as they do cyclically -- and sometimes suddenly. It was during the early 1990s when ocean conditions were poor that salmon and steelhead went on the endangered species list.

Salmon that have to go past just the four Columbia River dams in Oregon and Washington are now returning at rates that suggest they are productive enough to hold up even in years of poor ocean conditions.

But it's not yet clear that the salmon that have to get through eight dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers -- Idaho's fish -- can survive bad ocean years.

That's why both sides are keeping removal of the four lower Snake dams on the table, to varying degrees.

"I'm optimistic," Bodi said. "We've put the fish on the path to recovery. At the end of 10 years, we'll have a better sense of it."

Related Pages:
Barging Gets High Marks at Research Review by Bill Rudolph, NW Fishletter, 12/10/10

Rocky Barker
Resurgent Northwest Salmon Show Dam 'Spill' is Better than Barging
Idaho Statesman, December 5, 2010

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation