Spill More Water for Columbia Salmonby Staff
The Oregonian, December 15, 2005
Judge Redden should order more controversial, costly releases of water,
and press for stronger salmon recovery
A whole lot of lawyers will wedge into U.S. District Judge James Redden's courtroom this morning to haggle about spilling more water over Columbia River dams in the next year to help young salmon and steelhead reach the ocean.
They will offer wildly conflicting projections of salmon returns and costs to electricity ratepayers. When all the arguments are in, Redden should be guided by this philosophy: This time, the benefit of the doubt goes to the salmon.
There is no clear path here for Redden, or for Columbia salmon. The hundreds of pages of written arguments that have cascaded into court contain powerful arguments for and against spilling more water over dams, or spilling over different periods of time when young salmon are migrating to the sea.
The plaintiffs that successfully sued the federal government over its salmon recovery plan, including the National
Wildlife Federation, urge Redden to order more water spilled over the dams throughout spring and summer. They also ask that more upriver water be held back in the winter and used to increase summer river flows -- a more costly and uncertain request that the judge should deny.
The Bonneville Power Administration and the other federal agencies that manage the dams and oversee fish recovery are proposing more limited and targeted spill increases in early spring, and less summer spill. The agencies still insist that barging and trucking, the traditional methods of getting young salmon around dams, can lead to higher returns of adult fish.
Redden has yet to tip his hand, but we cannot imagine the judge listening to the arguments and then telling the federal agencies: Keep on truckin'. Last year, faced with a similar choice, Redden ordered summer spill that the federal agencies and river user groups derided as "risky" and "untested."
Now, a year later, there's a furious debate about the spill's impact. Environmental groups point to a 64 percent increase in the survival of young fall chinook. The BPA and others say most migrating fish were through the dams before the higher spill went into effect.
The judge holds to the common-sense view that if water is good for fish, more water is better. But nothing about the Columbia River system is that simple. The Northwest cannot separate the debate over what's best for the fish with what's best for electricity ratepayers and the region's economy.
The BPA claims the plaintiffs' proposals would cost more than $300 million in foregone electricity revenues if this is a typical water year, and add about $5 a month to households served by utilities that buy all or nearly all of their power from the BPA. The plaintiffs have their own analysis suggesting that the costs would amount to about $2.68 per month for those ratepayers, and even less for others.
Redden must carefully consider the economic costs of any measure he imposes in the name of salmon recovery. But the decision to spill water this spring and summer ought to be based primarily on what's best for the fish. The Northwest is sitting here, after more than 30 years and billions of dollars spent on salmon, with 12 species on the endangered species list, with four in danger of extinction.
Redden believes that salmon recovery is possible -- without breaching dams -- if the federal government, states and tribes make every other effort to protect endangered and threatened fish. Surely, every effort includes spilling more water over dams this year.
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