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Commentaries and editorials

Dams More Valuable than Fish

by Cyrus Noe, Guest Columnist
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 4, 2004

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial "Protect salmon if you want dams" (Feb. 22) needs to be seen in a factual and credibility context. Stopping summer spill is important in making salmon recovery more cost effective. As 2004 returns are seen as likely to set even more records, saving money is a logical order of business.

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council is about to report that Bonneville Power Administration salmon costs since 1978 have totaled $6.452 billion. In January, the council heard from BPA, the Corps of Engineers and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries on summer spill economics and benefits. The cost is colossal, benefits marginal.

Cost is pegged at $77 million and benefits as a return of 24 more endangered salmon. That's $3 million per listed fish.

How can this be? Juvenile runs in July and August fall off steeply and become a few stragglers by August. There are simply too few summer fish in the river to benefit from spill at the four dams involved.

Bonneville authorized summer spill in 1995 without a biological mandate as a political gesture described by those familiar with the situation as a "sop to the tribes." Summer spill is now institutionalized and benefits assumed rather than demonstrated.

Some call eliminating summer spill a step backward from what the editorial calls "the promises of aggressive salmon protection that, supposedly, can prevent the need to remove any dams." But the BPA-Corps-NOAA study includes a list of protection projects that could be funded as offsets for such summer spill benefits as there are.

The editorial says that while saving money is OK, "The steep increases in electric rates in recent years are the result of the scandalous push for electric deregulation, not environmental remediation."

Facts suggest otherwise. The biggest single rate increase factor has to have been BPA paying $1.5 billion to purchase high-priced power in 2001 (during California energy crisis) to comply with water management provisions in the 2000 NOAA Fisheries Biological Opinion.

The editorial is right to suggest that recovery funding and operations should involve cooperation. But it is wrong to suppose that dam breaching remains a viable trump card solution if lesser remediation turns out not to be aggressive enough. Tearing out dams was also a political gesture as a sop to fish advocates during the last administration.

The Corps of Engineers in a huge study said breaching was without merit. But political operatives insinuated breaching into the Biological Opinion recovery mix after subverting Corps study conclusions.

The truth is that the lower Snake dams with their multiple uses are more valuable to the state and region than salmon runs. But choosing dams or fish is flat-out not an honest option. Record-setting counts of recent years, now continuing, show once and for all that salmon runs can rise toward recovery with dams in place.

Salmon recovery has wide support, as indeed it should. But it's not anti-recovery to point out that the cost of that effort is breathtaking. We know about BPA's $6.452 billion cost since 1978. But there are more millions and even billions of dollars in costs incurred by regional utility systems, federal and state governments, resource industries, businesses and volunteer organizations.

This super-sized recovery enterprise spent much remediation money during years when salmon runs tended to decline, which raises fish management credibility issues. Now that runs are setting records, it's surely a good time to emphasize management accountability on such issues as summer spill.

BPA, the Corps and NOAA's Fisheries have put the summer spill issue in a scientific and factual context. So now federal decision makers should select offsets and put an end to summer spill. To do otherwise would compromise the recovery enterprise's credibility.

Cyrus Noe of Seattle is publisher of Northwest Fishletter, an online newsletter at reporting on fish and wildlife issues related to energy policy.
Dams More Valuable than Fish
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 4, 2004

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