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Commentaries and editorials

Salmon Plan 'Spills' Disaster

by Larry Schweiger
The Oregonian, June 11, 2004

The Bonneville Power Administration's just-released decision on summer spill will eliminate one of the few remaining effective measures in the Columbia River Basin to protect salmon and steelhead: spilling water at the dams so that young fish can successfully make their journey to the ocean without being killed in turbines or having to endure a truck ride around the dam. Why? Because BPA can make money by breaking its promises to protect these fish. This is the latest chapter in the sad and tragic story of how the Columbia River has been reduced from the wild and mighty artery of the Northwest to a polluted series of slack-water pools. More importantly, the administration's actions ignore the win-win solutions that would revitalize our communities and diversify our economy.

When our government leaders converted the free-flowing Columbia into a series of hydroelectric generating facilities, they made a bargain with the public, fishermen and the Indian tribes that relied on salmon for their very survival -- to operate those dams in ways that would maintain a healthy fish population. Because juvenile salmon making their way to the Pacific Ocean don't survive the trip through the turbines very well, and because other efforts to help fish migrate have failed (such as putting them in barges and trucks and giving them a lift to the ocean), the preferred approach has long been bypassing the turbines by spilling water at the dams in the spring and summer when young fish are making this journey.

Now, however, the administration will virtually eliminate summer spill, saying it "costs" too much. That's absurd. Spill doesn't cost anyone a dime. Rather, it's a potential profit that is not being generated. To generate that profit, though, would be illegal -- it would violate laws like the Endangered Species Act and treaties signed with Indian tribes. It's as if someone were complaining that laws prohibiting them from selling stolen cars "costs" them thousands of dollars. You never hear the government say that it costs them money when farmers take water out of the river for irrigation, water that would otherwise be available to generate power. Why the disparate treatment? Last spring, a federal judge ruled that the government's salmon recovery plan for the Columbia was illegal. He concluded that the measures in the plan were too uncertain to satisfy the law and mitigate the damage done by the hydro system. The judge gave the Bush administration one year to come up with a new plan that does more to facilitate fish survival. Amazingly, they're turning that ruling on its head by proposing to do even less for fish this summer by eliminating spill. In this year of low water flows and high river temperatures, salmon need spill more than ever. By ignoring this reality, BPA has disregarded the hugely positive economic impact spill has on fishing communities and is letting politics rather than science drive its decision.

The damage to salmon of stopping spill is well documented. During the 2001 drought, BPA eliminated spill on the Columbia and Snake rivers to maximize hydroelectric generation. This caused the deadliest juvenile salmon migration since the fish were listed under the Endangered Species Act. Now, these salmon are returning as adults, and early figures seem to show that the 2001 spill reduction and drought had an impact on adult returns. Low returns of salmon that migrated downriver in 2001 are a major reason salmon returns so far this year are 44 percent below what was expected.

After decades of hand-wringing, countless scientific studies, endless policy meetings and a series of court orders, we're largely in the same place that we started. Dollars come first, and keeping promises to leave a few fish in the river is an afterthought. When will the millions of people who have invested billions of taxpayer and ratepayer dollars toward salmon recovery be heard above the din of profiteers rushing to the bank?

Larry Schweiger is president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, based in Washington, D.C.
Salmon Plan 'Spills' Disaster
The Oregonian, June 11, 2004

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