Snake's Fish make Ocean Trip by Bargeby Mike Lee, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, February 24, 2000
The Corps of Engineers is preparing to eliminate lower Snake River dam spills for fish this year and transport all juvenile fish to the mouth of the Columbia River in another drought-induced effort to keep the lights on and fish alive.
The Corps will start collecting as many fish as possible at Lower Granite Dam near Lewiston in late March as chinook and steelhead make their way to the ocean.
"Right now, we are getting down close to 1977 drought conditions, and that was dismal for in-river survival" of young fish, said Dave Hurson, transportation manager for the Corps' Walla Walla District. "Under these conditions, the fish have to get to Lower Granite on their own, and from there we can give them some assistance."
When river flows are higher, some fish are left instream to migrate on their own as part of the government's "spread the risk" policy. But this year, peak flows in the lower Snake are expected to be about one-third of what they were in 1997.
John McKern, who retired in 2000 as chief of fisheries management for the Corps' Walla Walla District, said reducing spills is the right move this year.
"Spill wastes roughly the equivalent of the annual energy output of a 1,000-megawatt power plant, forcing the Bonneville Power Administration to purchase expensive power and recover the costs from the region's ratepayers," said McKern in a recent policy paper.
"Contrary to popular belief, minimizing spill and increasing smolt transportation will not only allow more power to be produced with the available water, but also maximize fish survival," said McKern, now a private consultant.
Typically, said Hurson, the Corps transports 60 to 75 percent of salmon and steelhead from the lower Snake to below Bonneville Dam. Agency officials like the program because it gets virtually all the fish downstream alive, versus about 50 percent survival for fish left in the river.
Ed Chaney, longtime critic of the Corps in Eagle, Idaho, sees it this way: "The Corps has admitted that it can't get juvenile fish past the four lower Snake River dams, so it has to take them out of the river."
The practice of barging fish downstream started in 1968 as a way to provide safe passage around turbines and reservoirs that were clogging the river system.
In 1977, the worst water year on record, the Corps rented and retrofitted barges to carry an unprecedented number of fish downstream because all river water was to be used for power. That meant all fish would have been sentenced to the turbines -- until the Corps removed and barged 5.4 million of them.
The transport program continued to grow with more than 17 million fish a year being collected on and shipped down the Snake by the early 1990s.
"Even though we have concerns about transport, we think transport is better" than sending fish through the turbines, said Brian Gorman, spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
"I just don't want people to think somehow that all is lost. And we can't do anything for salmon if we are going to have electricity," Gorman said. "There is going to be a series of compromises."
Even some environmentalists seem resigned to what Rob Masonis calls "horrific" water conditions.
"Transport is at best a stop-gap measure to avoid lethal river conditions," said Masonis at American Rivers, a conservation group in Seattle. "There probably will be times this year when it will make more sense to barge the fish."
Chaney, director of the Northwest Resource Information Center, is less forgiving. "We are getting it both ways -- not enough energy and fish going extinct," he said. "Somebody ought to be arrested for this, but that's not going to happen. What is going to happen is we are going to kill more salmon."
States, tribes and federal agencies develop river operations on a weekly basis, setting goals for flow levels, reservoir fill levels and amounts of spill over dams.
While that effort continues, there's concern among those who want to keep the lower Snake dams in place that this year will work against them. Federal agencies plan to review salmon survival on the lower Snake in three years to see if stocks are bad enough to send a dam breaching plan to Congress.
"The instant that it got down to the question between power and fish, immediately BPA started producing more power," said Dean Boyer at the Washington Farm Bureau. "How can you tie taking out those dams to how successful we have been at salmon recovery if at the first sign of a power crunch, all that (salmon work) goes out the window?"
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