Endangered Salmon May Be Casualties
Jim Carlton, Staff Reporter
LEWISTON, Idaho -- As the West's power crisis threatens to unravel environmental protections, the region's salmon are already taking it on the fin.
With many of the Northwest's runs of endangered salmon set to begin in just a few weeks, biologists fear the fish will become casualties of the power emergency. That is because much of the water needed to flush the salmon past all the dams and lakes of the Columbia River basin during their annual migration run is being diverted to help generate electricity. "It's a shame, but the salmon are going to have to pay for our mismanagement of the power system," says local environmental activist Jim Bradford, standing at the rim of the dwindling Dworshak Reservoir, ground zero for the salmon debate.
The anticipated salmon toll is just one fallout on the environment from The energy crisis, as Western dams go into overdrive to help offset a drop in power supplies brought on by California's deregulation mess.
If California builds more power plants to address energy-supply concerns, That could expose the state to more pollution. President Bush and California Gov. Gray Davis both support expediting permits for more power facilities in California. Separately, California State Sen. Maurice Johannessen has introduced a bill that would help underwrite as much as $8 billion in new dams and other power infrastructure. The industry-backed bill also is opposed by environmentalists worried about further harnessing of the state's already dammed-up rivers.
"This is politics of panic," says Carl Zichella, director of the Sierra Club's regional office in Sacramento, Calif.
Environmentalists warn that the power industry is attempting to use the energy crisis and the industry's close ties to the Bush administration to reverse years of conservation progress, a charge industry officials deny. "We are trying to find an appropriate balance between power and the need to protect the environment," says Greg Delwiche, vice president of generation supply for the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal marketing agency that gets much of its power from the Columbia's network of hydroelectric plants.
In the Northwest, meanwhile, one prominent casualty of the energy crisis appears to be the government's plans to consider dismantling four dams on the lower Snake River in order to protect endangered salmon. Citing the energy crisis, President Bush recently reiterated his opposition to breaching the dams, which together provide about 1,100 megawatts of power. The Clinton administration had supported studying such a plan, a move that generated controversy because it would disrupt waterway transportation to the ocean from eastern parts of Washington, Oregon and western Idaho.
"We're really taking a hit," says Jeff Curtis, Western conservation director for Trout Unlimited, an environmental group based in Portland, Ore.
Power officials, however, say they have had little choice but to take drastic measures such as leaving less water for fish. "We're being stretched in two directions -- generate power and protect the salmon," says Ed Mosey, spokesman for Bonneville.
Located in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the Dworshak Reservoir is in a corner of north-central Idaho, just upstream from where the aptly named Clearwater River joins with the Snake. It was in that desert valley where the Nez Perce tribe nursed explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark back to health nearly 200 years ago.
The twin cities of Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston, Wash., with a combined population of about 50,000, have grown up around that site, and the economy is closely tied to area wheat farms and a Potlatch Corp. pulp and paper mill. Without the dams, products that now are barged down the Snake would have to be shipped by train and truck, a more-expensive proposition that local business leaders fear would seriously disrupt their economy.
"Besides, nobody has made a convincing case that taking out the dams will save the fish," says Frank Carroll, spokesman for the 2,200-employee Potlatch plant here. He attributes the salmon's decline to other factors, such as past heavy fishing.
Environmentalists agree overfishing has taken a toll, but they say the dams that were built in the 1960s and '70s have continued to wreak havoc on Salmon runs that once numbered in the millions of fish but have dwindled to a few thousand.
Desperate to save the Northwest's signature fish from possible extinction, state, federal and tribal biologists have been working to put together a recovery plan. Under those efforts, the National Marine Fisheries Service in December mandated that more than a million acre-feet of water -- or enough to serve a city the size of Los Angeles for one year -- be spilled over the dams during the spring, summer and fall runs of Chinook salmon.
The water is needed both to push young salmon through dam lakes they otherwise would have a tough time swimming through, as well as to keep the water cool. In summer, the desert sun warms slow-moving parts of the river higher than the 68-degree limit the salmon need to survive.
The 717-foot-high Dworshak Dam is considered crucial to the salmon efforts, both because of its size -- the reservoir created by the dam extends 54 miles up the North Fork of the Clearwater River -- and because it generally stays cool. The lake, which is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is fed by cold Rocky Mountain streams.
But as the California energy crisis widened to the Northwest this winter, officials at Bonneville set aside the salmon-protection rules from Jan. 18 to Feb. 5, and again beginning Feb. 12 to help augment sinking hydroelectric supplies. So far, almost 200,000 acre-feet of water have been diverted from Dworshak, or nearly a fifth of the amount the fish are supposed to get from the dam. The lake is now nearly 50 feet lower than normal, because of both the drought and the diversions.
Bonneville officials say they had little choice, because they were hit with a double whammy of drought and the California energy crisis. California typically has enough power left over at this time of year to ship to the Northwest, but not now. The resulting strain on the agency's hydro sources, they add, means that even the big Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia is drained far below its normal level for this time of year.
"There's not a lot we can do to mitigate the impacts from the drought, either for power or fish," Mr. Delwiche says.
But environmentalists and some state and tribal leaders disagree, saying the power agency hasn't tried other steps such as banking water from agricultural customers or setting aside its annual payments to the U.S. Treasury Department to buy power elsewhere. Bonneville is a federal agency that is part of the Department of Energy. There is also a dispute between federal and state scientists over whether another Bonneville decision -- to preserve water for fall salmon, but not the more-plentiful spring and summer ones -- is helpful or harmful. The federal scientists argue for the former, while their state counterparts insist both species need equal protection and worry about irreparable harm.
"What's really alarming," says Steve Pettit, a biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, "is that we're pushing the salmon closer to extinction."
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