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Protect Salmon If You Want Dams

by Editorial Board
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - February 22, 2004

In polite discussions, everyone agrees on the need for forward-looking Columbia River management, encompassing the needs of people, salmon and the environment. Federal agencies, though, may be ready to roll back the clock.

The Bonneville Power Administration is exploring possible changes in some Columbia and Snake River dams' summer spills. A spill is where water is allowed to flow over the top of a dam, instead of through turbines. This protects young salmon.

Reducing or eliminating the spills would be an extremely bad idea. Salmon protection efforts have been marginal, barely good enough to allow modest recovery of some runs. A federal judge has ordered better plans for fish protection, finding that the requirements of the Endangered Species Act haven't been met.

Whatever legal complications a change in summer spills might create, it would be a retreat from the promises of aggressive salmon protection that, supposedly, can prevent the need to remove any dams. It would also turn the Columbia a bit more into a massive holding pond rather than a river.

A desire to save money for electricity ratepayers is behind the interest of the BPA, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council and other agencies. That's a worthy goal. But it's hardly one that has been neglected in river operations. The steep increases in electric rates in recent years are the result of the scandalous push for electricity deregulation, not environmental remediation.

BPA administrator Steve Wright reportedly has put the spills' cost at $77 million. The agency says other steps, such as habitat protection, might save as many fish for much less.

But that ignores the effects on genetic stocks that could occur with any reduction in the population of wild salmon and other migrating fish. As the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission notes, letting juvenile salmon move downstream with a spill is the safest option. Anything else is a greater gamble.

Tribes and state agencies can be excused if they feel offended by BPA suggestions that restoration of some spending cuts on their programs would follow. River operations should be based on cooperation, not financial strong-arming on the part of the biggest player.

For all the talk in recent years about respecting the environment, tribes and fishing-dependent communities, the spill discussion reflects a view of the river as a hydro plant invented by 20th century know-how, not a great natural resource left to us to treasure. That's exactly how we got into trouble.

Related Pages:
BPA Gets Little Support for Reduced Spill NW Fishletter, 2/6/4 by Bill Rudolph

Editorial Board
Protect Salmon If You Want Dams
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 22, 2004

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