Electric Utilities Devise Plan
by Joe Rojas-Burke
Power providers say the costly procedure isn't effective enough,
but others question their findings
Environmental lawyers struck a knockout punch -- or so it seemed in May -- when a judge rejected as inadequate the U.S. government's plan to protect endangered Columbia River salmon from hydroelectric dams.
But in the vacuum left by that ruling, electric utilities are finding ways to avoid a particularly costly measure intended to improve survival of salmon.
"We think that we can meet our goals for fish recovery in a much more effective way," said Scott Corwin, a vice president for PNGC Power, an association of 15 rural electric cooperatives in Oregon and Washington.
No final decisions have been made, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies are close to deciding what will happen next summer, when swarms of newly hatched salmon migrate to sea.
During spring and summer, fishery authorities have required dam operators to open spillways in dams to help young fish pass without getting chewed up in power-generating turbines. It's expensive because the spilled water can't be harnessed to generate electricity.
Bonneville Power Administration, the federal power marketing agency, says it would give up about $80 million in revenue to spill water for fish next July and August.
Bonneville Power officials are seeking to reduce the amount of water spilled for fish those two months, spokesman Ed Mosey said.
Utilities question benefits Utilities and other large power buyers say the benefits for salmon are modest and not worth the high price. Energy consultant Randy Hardy, a former Bonneville Power administrator, outlined the utilities' case this week in front of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council meeting in Portland. The council, with members appointed by the governors of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana, develops conservation and energy policies for the region.
Hardy cited an estimate of the number of threatened or endangered salmon gained from the summer spill program: an additional 15 returning adults, according to a power council biologist. The number is low because many migrating salmon are captured upstream of dams and transported by barge or truck past the hydro system. By late summer, many that migrate in-river have already passed the dams.
Hardy said the benefits of spill can be achieved by much cheaper means, such as controlling predators and tightening quotas on salmon fishing.
Members of tribes with salmon fishing treaty rights said the low estimate of benefits is misleading. For instance, it excludes salmon stocks that aren't listed as threatened or endangered.
Biologists with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, an agency representing four tribes, said cutting out spill in July and August would result in the loss of between 15,000 and 25,000 adult returns in following years.
Spillways called surest route Andrew Englander, with the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, said spillways are the surest route for stocks entering the Columbia at or below the last collection point for barging. That includes salmon from the Deschutes and Klickitat rivers, and the Hanford Reach of the Columbia.
"And that's an immensely important fishery to the region's economy," Englander said.
The power council, for its part, has called for tests of the benefits of the spill program and whether less costly measures can achieve equal benefits for salmon populations.
Bob Lohn, regional administrator of the Northwest region of the National Marine Fisheries Service, said his agency and the Army Corps of Engineers are developing a plan to test the effect of reducing spill, but not eliminating it.
"I certainly don't see a future of no spill," Lohn told the council. He said his agency will consult with the four treaty tribes before finalizing a plan.
Conservation groups and tribes are gearing up to lobby elected officials to preserve the spill program. Todd True, the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund lawyer who led the lawsuit against the federal salmon plan, said the move to curtail the spill program could be illegal, given the court ruling in May.
"They are already outside of legal bounds here, and they are talking about doing less," True said.
Lohn told the council that the legal hurdles could be addressed if offsetting measures can be demonstrated to be "biologically equivalent or better" than spill.
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