Federal Officials Look to Revamp Spill Plansby Chris Mulick, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, August 6, 2003
Federal executives acknowledged Tuesday that a program believed to cost electric ratepayers $7.6 million for every endangered fish it saves is not cost-effective but declined to curtail summer spill operations at Northwest dams.
Instead, they will ask the judge overseeing efforts to re-write the plan that governs fish recovery in the Columbia Basin whether he'll allow this summer's spill to be cut short Aug. 15. That would save ratepayers as much as $20 million.
"This is a bit of a long shot," Steve Wright, administrator for the Bonneville Power Administration, said Tuesday at the conclusion of a meeting of the heads of a series of federal agencies involved in fish recovery.
The merits of the strategy to send water over dams instead of through turbines during the summer months is a perennial hot button issue.
Environmentalists and Northwest Indian tribes came unglued when spill regimes were curtailed during the 2001 drought, when Bonneville desperately needed power to make promised deliveries to utilities.
This year, the agency needs cash to help overcome a financial crisis and prevent a fall rate increase.
Spill programs in July and August are targeted because that's when extra megawatts churned out at federal dams can be sold most profitably to the Southwest.
It is believed the agency could have made $30 million extra had there been no spill operations in July and $38 million in August.
At the same time, summer is when there are the fewest endangered fish still in Northwest rivers to benefit from the program. A recent analysis by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, assigned with balancing the needs of fish and power generation in the region, indicated spill programs in August under average water conditions increase survival by about five fish listed under the Endangered Species Act.
That comes to $7.6 million per listed fish this year, though several thousand unlisted fish also benefit.
Wright said he was reluctant to reject the plan to halt spill operations, acknowledging "the calculated biological benefit appears to be small even under the most optimistic assumptions."
"We would concur that the benefits are relatively low," said Bob Lohn, regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries, which is working to re-write its biological opinion which a federal judge has ruled is inadequate to guarantee fish recovery.
While willing to test the merits of spilling water over dams at a later date, the federal agencies -- also including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers -- said there is no time to devise a monitoring program to analyze the impacts of curtailing spill this month. Also, the agencies are reluctant to go forward while the salmon recovery strategy is being re-written.
Montana brought the plan forward in an attempt to reduce water drafted from Libby and Hungry Horse dams to provide a better habitat for its resident fish. Releasing water later would cost BPA about $4 million to $5 million.
To offset that, Montana proposed curtailing spill operations downriver, citing the relative lack of biological benefits, which environmentalists and tribes dispute.
Utilities have embraced the plan in hopes of avoiding a BPA rate increase, which they would have to pass on to their retail customers.
"We're trying to make it a big issue in the region," Benton PUD Manager Jim Sanders told the Herald.
"You're spending so much money to save a few fish that aren't even listed," said Franklin PUD Manager Ken Sugden.
Thought they rejected Montana's proposal, the federal agencies indicated changes still could be made in future years.
"The kinds of concerns you've raised today are very much on the table," Lohn said. "These considerations will be taken up."
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs