Agency OKs BPA Plan
by Joe Rojas-Burke
The proposal would lower costs to Northwest utilities and offset killed fish,
but conservation groups say it hurts all salmon
The federal agency responsible for protecting endangered salmon has approved a move to boost power production at Columbia and Snake river dams this summer, a proposal vigorously opposed by fishing and conservation groups that say the dams will become more deadly for young salmon.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, in an analysis released Friday, concluded that offsetting measures proposed by dam operators are likely to compensate for any additional salmon killed going through power-generating turbines.
The Bonneville Power Administration typically releases water over dams during spring and summer to help young salmon bypass turbines. This year, the federal energy wholesaler intends to end spillway releases a month earlier than usual at two dams and six days earlier at two others. Dams then can harness more water for generating electricity during a time of high market demand.
The BPA estimates selling the extra power to California and other regions would enable it to lower charges to Northwest utilities by $18 million to $28 million without hurting salmon runs. The savings estimates are less than the $35 million to $45 million the BPA projected in March, before scaling back power production to a level the agency deemed more commensurate with the capability to protect salmon runs.
The scaled-back plan has not assuaged salmon conservation groups. It also has disappointed public and private electric utilities that lobbied for big reductions in the amount of water spilled for fish after seeing their wholesale power costs climb nearly 50 percent since (due to) the 2001 energy market crisis.
The Coalition for Smart Salmon Recovery, representing public and investor-owned utilities, farmers and other businesses, has urged the BPA to find more cost-effective ways to protect migrating salmon. The federal power marketing agency estimates it loses an average of $77 million a year in potential revenue by releasing water over spillways instead of capturing its energy.
To compensate for fish likely to be killed by the proposed changes, the BPA said it will spend $9.6 million on new or expanded salmon conservation efforts. Among them, it will pay Idaho Power Co. $4 million to improve water flow in the Snake River by releasing an additional 100,000 acre-feet of water from Brownlee reservoir in July.
The fisheries agency, formerly called the National Marine Fisheries Service, focused its analysis on threatened Snake River fall chinook, the only federally protected stock likely to be affected by the stepped-up power generation. The agency predicts that changes in dam operations will kill 100 to 900 juvenile fall chinook but that additional flow from Brownlee reservoir will increase survival through the hydrosystem by 700 to 1,100 fish.
Conservation and fishing groups say the plan makes salmon runs too dependent on large-scale barging and trucking of fish past dams. These groups also contend the offsetting measures will not make up for the tens of thousands of young salmon that will be lost, including stocks not listed as threatened or endangered, such as the Hanford Reach fall chinook.
"It can't be said loudly enough: Many more fish are going to be lost if this proposal is implemented," said Charles Hudson, a spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. The group represents four Native American tribes with treaty fishing rights.
The BPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Hanford Reach salmon will be enhanced by an agreement to control dam operations to limit river fluctuations that strand and kill thousands of young fall chinook. The BPA also has expanded a bounty fishing program to reduce northern pikeminnow, which gorge on young salmon.
"We feel that we can maintain the survival of these juvenile salmon at current levels or better and still save a substantial amount of money for the Northwest economy," said Ed Mosey, a BPA spokesman. "We hope approvals move ahead."
The four treaty tribes have asked the federal agencies to withdraw the proposal. The Corps of Engineers, which runs the dams, has said it will make a final decision on summer operations by next week.
If the Corps of Engineers approves the spill reduction, the tribes and several conservation groups on Friday said they would ask a federal judge to decide whether the changes are legal under the Endangered Species Act.
Spilling water to assist downstream migration has long been a part of the fisheries agency's requirements for operating dams in a way that reduces harm to threatened and endangered salmon.
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