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BPA Won't Risk Power to Aid Fish Migration

by Michelle Cole
The Oregonian, June 30, 2001

The agency's no-spill policy this summer generates outrage
among those who contend that more could be done for salmon

With Columbia River flows near record-setting lows and up against the threat of power outages this winter, the Bonneville Power Administration said Friday that it cannot risk spilling water over federal dams this summer to help migrating salmon.

The BPA, marketer of about half the region's electricity, announced its no-spill decision following a report by the National Weather Service estimating the January-July runoff in the Columbia River basin at 53.9 million acre feet. The lowest flow ever recorded was 53.8 million-acre feet, in 1977.

In a nondrought year, the federal government spills water over its dams to give young fish safer and swifter passage to the ocean.

This year, low flows compromise the ability of the hydroelectric system to produce enough electricity to meet the region's demand. Because the region's only nuclear power plant is down for repair with no definite start-up date, (bluefish interjects: Five days later BPA's "Yakima Nuclear Plant Back on Line" 7/4/01) the BPA says it needs all available water for electricity generation or to store as insurance against winter blackouts.

"Summer spill would reduce power system reliability to an unacceptably low level," BPA Acting Administrator Steve Wright said Friday.

Northwest tribal officials and fish advocates were outraged by the decision. With lower wholesale power prices and the BPA's recently announced reductions in electricity demand, they argued that the agency could do more for fish.

"I find the whole thing kind of stunning," said Jeff Curtis, western conservation director with Trout Unlimited. "To provide additional spill they could buy power on a market that seems to be stabilizing. Or, the other thing we've suggested 90 times: Why don't they get water out of Idaho that irrigators are putting on fields to grow potatoes for which there's no market?"

Don Sampson, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, accused the BPA of squandering nearly two decades of salmon recovery efforts and billions of taxpayer dollars.

"We've already lost significant numbers of the spring migrants," Sampson said of juvenile salmon. "Now Bonneville is going to write-off the summer migrants."

The BPA declared power emergencies this spring, allowing dam operators to waive requirements of the federal government's salmon recovery plan and send water through power-generating turbines. In May, the agency ordered a limited spill, about one-third of what was called for by the salmon recovery plan for that peak migration month.

Spilling water to aid fish in the spring carries a higher priority than summer spill, because spring is when eight of nine endangered or threatened species are in the river, said James Ruff, senior fishery policy analyst with the National (Marine) Fisheries Service.

Still, Ruff said, summer spill would help fish in a year with low river flows and high water temperatures. According to a fisheries service analysis, the threatened Snake River fall chinook as well as a number of stocks not listed as threatened or endangered are more likely to die without additional flows to move them through the hydrosystem.

"There are fish coming into the river now that would benefit," Ruff said. "Just because they aren't listed doesn't mean that we shouldn't protect them."

BPA officials said the agency will look for options in the coming weeks that might allow it to reverse its decision.

"It still may be possible to provide for a limited amount of spill by making (additional power) purchases on the market," said Hugh Moore, a BPA spokesman. "But as soon as a big buyer like Bonneville goes out on the market and tries to buy power, the prices go back up again."

Fish advocates say there's not much time left for the BPA to change its mind.

About a third of the migrating fish are through the system. By July 8, half will be through and 95 percent through by the middle of August, Ruff said. "If we were going to spill, today would have been the day to start."

Related Page:
BPA Won't Risk Power to Aid Fish Migration
Council asks BPA to Make Power Top Priority

Related Page:
Yakima Nuclear Plant Back on Line
Council asks BPA to Make Power Top Priority

Michelle Cole
BPA Won't Risk Power to Aid Fish Migration
The Oregonian, June 30, 2001

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