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Dam Fish-Spill Issue Taken To the Top

by Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
The Columbian, December 22, 2003

Conservation and fishing groups have appealed to President Bush to block an initiative by the Bonneville Power Administration to reduce the amount of water spilled around dam turbines in the summer.

Federal dam managers contend that summer spilling costs tens of millions of dollars but only provides negligible benefits to endangered fish. They have already received the support of the four-state Northwest Power and Conservation Council to conduct an experiment in reducing spill, but the issue has touched a raw nerve among conservation and tribal groups.

Bush, during a visit in August to Ice Harbor Dam near Pasco, vowed that dams and salmon can co-exist.

The spill issue represents the "heart and soul of the entire debate," said Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association.

"When do we get our study on full-spill measures?" she said.

Indeed, federal dam managers have struggled for years to meet targets for diverting water carrying ocean-bound juvenile salmon over spillways and away from turbines. During the drought and energy crisis of 2001, Bonneville reduced its spill program by about 90 percent.

"Northwest fishermen do not require any further 'tests' to determine the effects of eliminating spill," Hamilton wrote in a letter to Washington Gov. Gary Locke, co-signed by 30 representatives of fishing-related businesses. "This cutback significantly harmed outmigrating juvenile salmon and steelhead that year and has weakened the ratio of returning adults from the 2001 migration."

Biologists have long considered the practice of dumping water over spillways a preferable alternative to shooting fish through turbines, where they might clang off the turbine blades or suffer an effect similar to the bends experienced by deep-sea divers. But the practice saps the dams' ability to generate electricity.

The Bonneville Power Administration contends it loses $80 million in electricity sales during the average July and August, with a negligible benefit for endangered salmon.

Bonneville's cost assessment rankles Northwest conservation leaders, especially in light of the many other demands placed on the river that are never tallied, including navigation, irrigation and flood control.

"Pretending that these fish owe Bonneville money is a view of the world we can't ascribe to," Hamilton said. "It's a river, not a power plant."

In a letter to Bush, representatives of 11 conservation and fishing groups noted that summer spill also benefits plenty of salmon runs that aren't currently listed as threatened or endangered. The groups argued that those runs including fall chinook that spawn in the Columbia's last undammed stretch, through the Hanford Nuclear Reservation form the backbone of the river's tribal, sport and commercial fisheries.

"Eliminating or reducing summer spill in 2004 would be a serious blow to an already ailing Northwest economy," they wrote.

The letter reminded the president of his commitment to salmon recovery, "and the importance of healthy salmon runs to the economy and culture of the Pacific Northwest."

The letter claimed spill curtailments could reduce returns of all Columbia stocks by 10,000 fish annually, not just the 15 endangered Snake River fall chinook calculated by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

The letter was signed by Hamilton, along with chief executives of the Save Our Wild Salmon coalition, Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, Trout Unlimited, NW Energy Coalition, Idaho Rivers United, American Rivers, Friends of the Earth and the Washington Trollers Association.

"The 'savings' from eliminating summer spill, if applied to a reduction in electricity rates, would result in a discount of roughly fifty cents per month on the average Northwest residential ratepayer's bill," they wrote.

They added, "It makes little sense to inflict further economic harm on salmon-based communities and businesses in exchange for a negligible reduction in the average ratepayer's electricity bill."

Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
Dam Fish-Spill Issue Taken To the Top
The Columbian, December 22, 2003

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