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Tribes Fight Dam Spill Reduction Proposal

by Anna King, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, February 13, 2004

Debate over how much water should be spilled during the summer over the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers has reached the boiling point.

On Thursday, Northwest Indian tribes opposed any federal plans to reduce the amount of water released over the dams.

The resolution was passed in Portland at the annual winter conference of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, which includes 54 tribes.

The tribes criticized the federal agencies, led by the Bonneville Power Association for engaging in a "vague, unwritten, yet aggressive campaign," to reduce summer spill.

Summer spill is considered by the tribes to be the most effective way to pass young fish through dams on their downstream migration to the ocean.

"The things that the dams have done is stopped the free flowing river," said Rick George, program manager for the Umatilla Indian Reservation. "The action of summer spill is simply a way to make stagnant reservoirs act a little more like a river and move."

The tribes say a key problem is that they've never seen the specifics of any proposed changes to the summer spill program.

"The Bonneville Power Administration has been talking about this in hallway conversations for a year, but (the tribes) haven't seen anything concrete on it," said Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "And the tribes are tired of it, they have heard enough. The tribes are not interested in seeing just one more piece of the Columbia River sliced away."

Power companies and irrigators argue that the summer spill program is important, but costly, and could perhaps be mitigated in other ways.

They argue the limited amount of water in August could be better used to water crops and keep power rates low.

"There are times of the year when spill works," said Pat Boss, executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission. "In the middle of August to take huge volumes of water out of reservoirs to save a few fish -- we don't see how that is economically or environmentally viable."

August spilling is especially under tough scrutiny, because last year a scientist from the Northwest Power and Conservation Council found that few federally endangered fish would be harmed by reducing spilling late in the summer.

The council, formerly called the Northwest Power Planning Council, makes recommendations to dam operations, including the Army Corps of Engineers, on how to best protect fish and wildlife while considering power and irrigation issues.

"When I was looking at those stocks it appeared that there were quite a few fish coming out in July and it was reduced in August," concluded Bruce Suzumoto, author of the study and manager of special projects for the council.

If you counted the endangered fish coming out of the Snake River after shutting down the spilling in August, just five adult salmon would die, he said. That number was based on a calculation of how many juveniles usually survive to adulthood and migrate upstream.

The controversy involves the calculation, as well as not counting the other non-endangered fish that would also die.

"Our data shows a very different story of the numbers of fish that would be affected and it's in the hundreds to thousands not by the handful," said George, with the Umatillas.

The tribes estimate that summer spill reduction would kill as many as 50,000 adult salmon a year.

The council's recommendation after the study was to have dam operators evaluate their summer spill programs, said John Harrison, spokesman for the power council.

"It is true that Bruce's research showed that there were few fish in the river and a lot of water is being spilled over the dams in August," he said. "But we didn't take the next step of saying spill should be reduced."

But tribal officials say power companies have misrepresented the study's calculations.

"The one stock of fish more than any that would bear the brunt of the elimination of summer spill would be the Columbia Reach fall chinook," Hudson said. "They are the late migrants."

A decision to test different methods of summer spilling at Bonneville Dam in Portland this summer could be announced as early as Wednesday at the power council's meeting in Boise, Harrison said.

Anna King, Herald staff writer
Tribes Fight Dam Spill Reduction Proposal
Tri-City Herald, February 13, 2004

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