NW Power Planning Council Paves the Way
by Trout Unlimited
PORTLAND, ORE. -- Despite a more promising Northwest power forecast, larger-than-projected BPA cash reserves and a weight of scientific evidence against it, the Northwest Power Planning Council today issued a recommendation which essentially clears the way for the BPA to continue managing the Columbia and Snake rivers to maximize revenue at the cost of huge losses of migrating fall chinook salmon.
The Power Council - an oversight body of the federal hydropower system in the Northwest - issued a recommendation today which de-values the benefit of summer "spill" programs at federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. Spill - literally spilling water through dam spillways rather than through hydroelectric turbines - is recognized as the superior method of passing juvenile fish past hydroelectric dams while reducing mortality. Failure to spill leaves young migrating fish vulnerable to the dams' turbines as well as predation and high temperatures in sections of rivers that are blocked, pooled, slowed and warmed by dams and their reservoirs. While not binding, the Council's recommendation may free the BPA of many potential inter-agency and political entanglements associated with its abandonment of a legally mandated spill program this summer. If the BPA abandons spill, water that would have been spilled for migrating fall chinook salmon instead will be used to generate electricity - and revenue - for BPA.
"Salmon can't swim in revenue streams," said Jeff Curtis of Trout Unlimited. "Unfortunately, the flow of cash - not water - seems to be governing the way the dams and rivers are being managed this year."
Throughout the spring salmon migration season, the BPA has invoked a vague provision in the 2000 Federal Salmon Recovery Plan to declare "power emergencies" and thus to free itself of the legal obligations to provide spill for salmon and steelhead in its management of federal dams in the Columbia-Snake basin. Recently, however, power market forecasts have indicated that prices are stabilizing and falling, and the BPA's reserves for fiscal year 2001 will end up nearly double the anticipated $300 million.
"Despite their apparent windfall, the BPA continues to skirt its salmon obligations and use its self-declared financial emergency as a fallback," said Shawn Cantrell of Friends of the Earth. "They appear poised to do the same throughout the summer migration as well."
Fisheries scientists agree on the benefits of spill. In a joint memo issued in response to Council biologists' analysis questioning the benefit of spill, scientists from tribal, state and federal agencies voiced their support for a summer spill program, calling it "a key fish recovery and mitigation [measure]." The memo further calls for seeking additional measures to increase spill and flow levels in the river to more closely resemble those mandated by the 2000 Salmon Recovery Plan. As evidence, the memo cites an incident during the 1994 drought in which over 60,000 juvenile fall Chinook were killed at McNary Dam on the mid-Columbia due to high water temperatures. Already, analysts with the Fish Passage Center, which monitors fish at the dams, have determined that current operation of the federal hydropower system is causing "significant detrimental impact" to Columbia and Snake salmon.
The Power Council's spill analysis, released earlier this year, favored reliance on questionable mitigation strategies such as bypass systems and transporting fish in barges over spill programs. State, tribal and federal scientists disagree with that assertion as well. Not all dams are fitted with bypass systems, and those that are capture only half of the migrating salmon that reach the dam. The rest are at the mercy of the river, and the conditions dictated by river managers, where spill can only help. And scientists remain skeptical of the actual rates of survival among fish transported by barge that return as adults from the ocean.
"The shame in this is that the scientific evidence supporting summer spill as a viable - indeed necessary- measure is there for the Power Council and Bonneville to see, and it's importance becomes critical in a drought year to stave off major fish kills," said Pat Ford of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition. "It's pretty tragic if it takes sacrificing an entire year class of an already dwindling resource to convince them that water for fish in the summer was a good idea after all."
The BPA is expected to announce a final decision on summer spill on June 29.
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