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Power Panel Backs Salmon 'Experiment'

by Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
The Columbian, April 11, 2003

Federal managers should experiment with the amount of water dedicated to helping get imperiled salmon past 29 dams in the Columbia River basin, a key regional panel recommended Thursday.

The Northwest Power Planning Council finalized a controversial set of recommendations designed to protect imperiled salmon while giving dam managers additional flexibility to produce electricity.

The recommendations suggest dam managers "experiment" with curtailing the amount of water they release from huge upstream reservoirs to propel juvenile salmon toward the ocean.

The four-state council proposes experimenting with flow and spill targets established by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"This document represents a good regional consensus," said Vancouver's Larry Cassidy, one of two Washington representatives to the council. "There's something in it for everybody, and parts of it that nobody is satisfied with."

The recommendations come at a critical time for federal dam managers.

In September, a federal salmon-recovery plan faces the first "check-in" among three laid out in a biological opinion issued by the fisheries service in December 2000. The Clinton administration issued the report at the height of public pressure to breach four federal dams on the lower Snake River in Eastern Washington.

Environmental groups contend the federal government is failing to follow through on the commitments it made to improve fish survival through an "aggressive nonbreach" strategy of habitat improvements, hatchery reforms and upgrades to the 29 federal dams in the Columbia-Snake river basin.

The opinion also established fish-friendly targets for dumping water out of reservoirs and spilling water past dam turbines, but the Bonneville Power Administration paid little heed to the targets when power prices skyrocketed during the energy crisis in early 2001.

The power council's recommendations take the region even farther in the wrong direction for imperiled fish, said Andrew Englander, a policy analyst with Save our Wild Salmon, a coalition of conservation and fishing groups.

"This region is going to be faced with some pretty serious questions about how we move forward with salmon recovery," he said. "What we've seen is not only a complete unwillingness to implement the plan, but the council is now chipping away even at that."

Cassidy defended the final recommendations.

Cassidy, who first got involved in state and regional politics as a sportfishing activist 25 years ago, said he and fellow Washington representative Tom Karier pushed to keep an April 10 "refill target" for Lake Roosevelt. The target is supposed to guard against dam managers dumping so much water through Grand Coulee Dam that there's not enough water to propel juvenile salmon to the ocean in the late spring and early summer.

Even so, the recommendations suggest dam managers curtail the amount of water they dump out of Libby and Hungry Horse reservoirs. That water is supposed to help sea-going fish far downriver, but wildly fluctuating reservoirs have caused problems for boaters and resident fish in Montana.

Experimentation is unavoidable as people place more demands on the river, Cassidy said.

"As water becomes a more finite resource, the battle could come down to whether we keep the lights on or fish in the river," Cassidy said. "My concern as a fish advocate is: If we ever come to that point, the fish will lose."

Englander said it hasn't gotten to that point so far, even during the energy crisis of two years ago.

"We never saw it as a fish-versus-lights issue," he said. "It was a fish-versus-money issue."

The Northwest Power Planning Council will post its recommendations on operating federal dams in the Columbia River basin on its Web site under the heading "mainstem amendments" at

Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
Power Panel Backs Salmon 'Experiment'
The Columbian, April 11, 2003

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