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Fish Official Backs Curbs on Spills

by Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
The Columbian, December 12, 2003

PORTLAND - The Pacific Northwest's top salmon administrator Thursday gave a tentative thumbs-up to a proposal to curtail the amount of water spilled around dam turbines in the summer.

Federal dam managers contend that summer spilling costs tens of millions of dollars but only provides negligible benefits to endangered fish.

Bob Lohn, regional administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service, said spilling water is a safer route of passage for ocean-bound juvenile salmon than traveling through turbines. But, as long as dam managers show they can offset the loss of endangered smolts with other fish-saving measures, spill reductions would be permissible.

"When we can achieve results biologically equal or superior, then that would be a project that ought to be allowed," Lohn said.

Utility representatives argue that shouldn't be too difficult.

They point to a recent calculation by Northwest Power and Conservation Council analyst Bruce Suzumoto, who found that spilling water in the summer may improve annual adult returns of endangered Snake River fall chinook by as few as 15 fish.

Biologists have long considered the practice of dumping water over spillways a preferable alternative to shooting fish through turbines, where they might clang off the turbine blades or suffer an effect similar to the bends experienced by deep-sea divers. But the practice saps the dams' ability to generate electricity.

The Bonneville Power Administration contends it loses $80 million in electricity sales during the average summer, with a negligible benefit for endangered salmon.

Under the Endangered Species Act, Lohn's agency is supposed to issue a "biological opinion" as to whether the operation of federal dams jeopardizes the survival of 12 stocks of Columbia basin salmon already teetering on the brink of extinction. U.S. District Judge James Redden ordered NMFS to revise an opinion issued in 2000 earlier this year, saying a series of fish-protection measures laid out in the opinion lacked certainty.

Environmental and tribal groups say summer spill is a bedrock principle of salmon protection, and now is not the time to back away from it.

"This administration's position on spill is that this (biological opinion) is so flexible that you can just decide not to spill in the summer and somehow fall within the plan's parameters," said Nicole Cordan, policy and legal director for Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition of fishing and conservation groups.

"I think this is exactly what the judge was talking about."

Lohn told members of the four-state power council Thursday that the agency was likely to endorse only marginal reductions in the summer-spill program.

"I certainly don't foresee a future of no spill," he said.

BPA Administrator Steve Wright said the cost of spilling water away from dam turbines cost Bonneville about $1 million a day in forgone power sales at the end of August.

Lohn has already agreed to consult with tribes holding treaty rights for Columbia River salmon, and tribal groups have said summer spill is "not negotiable." Tribes contend that curtailing spill would harm Hanford Reach fall chinook as well as other non-endangered salmon that, collectively, form the backbone of tribal, sport and commercial fishing on the river.

Further, they contend that spilling water for fish is no more wasteful than dedicating water for irrigation, navigation or flood control.

"Bonneville's customers seem to believe they own the river," said Rob Lothrop, policy director for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "We don't hear them say we should stop irrigating because we want to generate power in July and August."

Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
Fish Official Backs Curbs on Spills
The Columbian, December 12, 2003

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