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NWPPC Offers Final Amendments to Plan

by Philip S. Moore, for the Capital Press
Capital Press, May 2, 2003

Proposal concentrates on habitat, passage improvements as means of aiding salmon

PORTLAND - The Northwest Power Planning Council is betting that habitat and passage improvements, rather than more water, will allow the region to meet its energy needs and obligation to endangered Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead.

The council spelled out its revised strategy in a series of amendments to the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Program, approved April 10. Concluding a two-year process, the amendments bring the NWPPC program into accord with the 2000 Biological Opinion, published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, now known as NOAA Fisheries.

By moderating their commitment to a recovery program based solely on water speed and volume, the power planning council members said they hope to improve habitat for resident fish species in Montana and northeast Washington, while allowing for more hydroelectric power generation, especially during the critical winter months.

Established by the Northwest Power Act in 1980, the council is a federal agency charged with coordinating a regional plan for balancing the need for hydroelectric power with the needs of migratory fish species, protected under the Endangered Species Act. Council members include representatives appointed by the governors of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana.

Primarily, the council supervises the operation of Columbia Basin dams, maintained or supervised by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, as well as the Bonneville Power Administration. The council's primary method for doing that is through the recommended actions and objectives included in the Fish and wildlife Program, originally completed in 1982, and modified several times since.

The introduction to the current amendments say they represent a "re-thinking" of the 1982 program, which attempted to manage migratory salmon and steelhead by increasing summer and fall water flow from storage reservoirs in Montana and Eastern Washington, as well as lowering of reservoir levels behind the eight Corps of Engineers dams on the Columbia and lower Snake rivers, and "spilling" water to keep juvenile salmon away from dam turbines.

Unlike the previous ones, the amended fish and wildlife program is committed to establishing a scientific foundation for basin-wide biological performance objectives through a series of tests and experiments, said Washington council member Larry Cassidy.

"It's an important step that this fish and wildlife program doesn't incorporate permanent changes in river management, he said. "Instead, it recommends studying ways to make the river operations more efficient for power generation and salmon recovery."

Cassidy said moving away from the "simplistic" formula of more water equals more fish was inevitable, since it hasn't worked.

"There's no question that the accepted theory is that the faster you get (juvenile salmon) downstream, the higher the survival, but that doesn't translate into more water always being beneficial," he said.

As an example, he cites The Dalles Dam, "where we're spilling 60 percent of the water behind the dam for the outbound migration."

Cassidy said this is causing nitrogen levels to rise too high, killing the fish the spill program is trying to help.

"Instead, we will be doing spill tests throughout the system, to find the right balance," he said.

Although he admits that most of the original habitat is gone, Cassidy said the council is looking for ways to improve the quality of the habitat that remains.

"Compared to the early 19th Century, we've changed the structure of the river, but we have to work with what we have today, and that means increasing the carrying capacity of those open rivers we still have," he said.

By moving away from the flow, draw-down and spill-based recovery program, the power planning council is on a collision course with various environmental, tribal and fishing industry organizations, who still insist that more water means more fish. Since the amended program is prompted by the 2000 Biological Opinion, it remains valid only as long as the opinion remains valid (see Judge Rules Against BiOp; 'Arbitrary and Capricious').

That will depend on the results of a federal lawsuit, filed in 2001 by Earthjustice on behalf of the National Wildlife Federation and its Washington and Idaho affiliates, the Sierra Club, Trout Unlimited, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Association, Institute for Fisheries Resources, Idaho Rivers United, Idaho Steelhead and Salmon Unlimited, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, Friends of the Earth, Salmon For All, Columbia Riverkeepers, American Rivers, the Federation of Fly Fishers and the Northwest Energy Coalition.

In oral arguments before Federal District Judge James Redden on April 21, attorney Todd True argued that the 2000 Biological Opinion does not protect the endangered fish from extinction.

"Our concern is that the opinion doesn't have the reliable and verifiable plan ensuring survival which the Endangered Species Act requires," True said. "Instead, we're getting a lot of proposals which might work."

Although Earthjustice has declared its commitment to removing or bypassing the four Lower Snake River dams, as the only certain method for ensuring endangered salmon and steelhead trout survival, True said this isn't part of his argument to the court.

"Breaching dams is one way to ensure survival, but it isn't what this case is about," he said.

If the 2000 Biological Opinion and the power planning council's fish and wildlife program remain in effect, Bonneville Power Administration will reap "significant benefits" through reduced cost for electrical energy and reduction in the number of programs paid by BPA, said spokesman Ed Mosey.

However, the money saved won't be crucial to solving Bonnevilles' financial difficulties.

"Other areas are more significant, including rate relief for publicly owned utilities and buy-back programs to reduce load," he said.

The outcome, Mosey said, is more important for the ratepayers, especially farmers and food processors in Eastern Oregon and Washington.

"They're the ones who'll benefit from cost reductions," he said.

"We're looking at a 15 percent rate increase this fall, unless our costs change. Right now, there are hundreds of pieces to the salmon-recovery program," Mosey said. "If we can reduce that to a smaller number offering the best benefit for the salmon, we can reduce costs, and that benefits everyone in the region, especially those like irrigators and processors, who use a lot of energy."

Philip S. Moore, for the Capital Press
NWPPC Offers Final Amendments to Plan
Capital Press, May 2, 2003

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