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Agency OKs Less Dam Spill for Fish

by Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
The Columbian, July 3, 2004

The National Marine Fisheries Service this week approved a plan by federal dam managers to cut the amount of water spilled for juvenile salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers.

The decision, proposed by the Bonneville Power Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, demonstrates the cost and complexity of the tradeoffs necessary to maintain salmon runs in rivers drastically altered by a network of hydroelectric dams.

Spilling water over dams was mandated in 2000 to make sure 12 stocks of imperiled salmon didn't go extinct. In the summer, imperiled Snake River fall chinook juveniles have to scoot past as many as eight dams to reach the ocean.

Last summer, BPA Administrator Steve Wright wanted to end spills early.

With each day of spill, he claimed to be losing $1 million in potential revenue.

Federal fish regulators rejected Wright's proposal.

But the BPA returned in March with a plan to cut the amount of water spilled over the dams in July and August by 55 percent. State and tribal biologists objected.

Though there is still disagreement about the plan, the fisheries service on Friday gave dam managers permission to reduce the amount of spill by 39 percent.

The reduction will enable the BPA to generate an additional $20 million to $31 million in revenue.

With the additional revenue, the BPA will be able to shave 1 to 2 percentage points from Northwest wholesale electric rates. That savings won't necessarily make its way to Clark County ratepayers.

Biologists consider dumping water over spillways on dams safer than shooting fish through turbines, where they could be injured by turbine blades or suffer an effect similar to the bends in deep-sea divers.

The practice saps the dams' ability to generate electricity. Bonneville, in turn, has less surplus electricity to sell to California utilities. The more surplus the BPA generates, the more it can reduce wholesale rates charged in the Northwest.

With 12 stocks of salmon and steelhead listed as threatened or endangered, spilling water has become a cornerstone of protecting imperiled Columbia basin fish.

Only one species of endangered fish will be hurt as the amount of spill is reduced. Federal officials expect a loss of only about a dozen Snake River fall chinook by the time the fish return to spawn in three or four years.

The plan will kill more than just endangered salmon, however. Unlisted fish will be reduced by as many as 12,000 by the time they're ready to return from the ocean in three or four years.

Dam managers say they'll offset the death of fish through habitat-improvement measures. Among them, BPA will contribute $2 million toward habitat improvements and pay Idaho Power Co. $4 million to flush 100,000 acre-feet of water out of Brownlee Dam in Hells Canyon in July.

Spills will be shut off altogether in August at Bonneville and The Dalles dams, and for the last five days of August at Ice Harbor and John Day.

Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
Agency OKs Less Dam Spill for Fish
The Columbian, July 3, 2004

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