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Dams' Control Getting Trickier

by Robert McClure
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 11, 2003

Council tries to balance water level upstream & down

Sure, a bunch of salmon runs in the Columbia and Snake rivers are protected by the Endangered Species Act.

But fish upriver, beyond huge dams where the salmon can't go, deserve some consideration, too. And the needs of fish must be balanced with using dams on those rivers to generate electrical power.

That was the essence of a decision issued yesterday by a federal planning agency.

It angered environmentalists. Ditto for several Indian tribes, which began seriously considering a lawsuit against the federal government to beef up water flows for salmon.

The decision by the Northwest Power Planning Council followed two years of wrangling over how much water should be run through the four-state system of massive power-generating dams on the Snake and Columbia, and at what time of year.

It's a key question in restoring the region's imperiled salmon runs because in dammed rivers, young salmon need an extra boost in river flow to get to the ocean. The bigger the boost, the more salmon get to sea and later return, scientists have found.

Yet the times when power generation needs are greatest don't always square with when fish need that extra push -- and water that flows past a dam to help fish downstream can't be used later to produce the juice that lights Northwesterners' homes.

Last fall, when the power council released a long-awaited plan to rejigger the dams' operations, environmentalists and Indian tribes on the lower Columbia pounced on it as bad for salmon.

In meetings this week in Portland, representatives of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana tried to strike a balance, said Larry Cassidy of Vancouver, one of Gov. Gary Locke's two appointees to the council.

He said Washington's representatives fought to keep the plan labeled an experiment so that the decision could be revisited sooner.

"The document in total represents a long-sought-after compromise between four states that have the responsibility of balancing the power needs and the fish and wildlife recovery in the region," Cassidy said. "The attempt was to try to find something that worked for everyone."

Among the goals of the plan is to try to reduce big fluctuations in upstream reservoirs caused by unleashing large slugs of water to help salmon downstream.

One big reason to moderate the big fluctuations, the power council says, is to benefit upriver Indian tribes that once depended on salmon but now must make due with trout and kokanee.

Salmon disappeared above the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia and above the Hells Canyon dams on the Snake when those dams were built without fish ladders.

Tribes downstream of the two blocking dams, represented by the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, oppose the plan.

The power council has 30 days to explain in writing why it overruled the Intertribal Fish Commission.

The tribal commission then has 90 days to file a lawsuit in federal court challenging the decision.

"Those are time frames that are very much on our mind right now," said Charles Hudson, spokesman for the tribes.

Salmon advocates pointed out that the rate of water flowing down the river at key fish migration times already regularly fails to meet targets set up in a federal salmon-recovery plan adopted in 2000.

At that time, federal officials said they would not disable four dams on the Snake River in southeast Washington.

They vowed to make extraordinary efforts to save dwindling salmon runs with other measures -- including giving the young salmon a boost downstream.

"They're cloaking their decision in the guise of a research project.

At the end of the day, you can call it what you want, but what matters to salmon is how much water is in the river," said Rob Masonis of the American Rivers conservation group, "and under their plan there is going to be less water in the river in summer months."

Robert McClure
Dams' Control Getting Trickier
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 11, 2003

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