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Dam Spillway Practice Wastes Money,
Federal Officials say

by Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
The Columbian, December 11, 2003

Federal dam managers divert millions of gallons of water over spillways every summer, scooting thousands of juvenile salmon safely along their way to the Pacific Ocean.

But the longtime practice is getting renewed scrutiny from the Bush administration.

Power managers have long chafed at having to spill water away from dam turbines, especially during the summer. They argue the practice sacrifices millions of dollars in potential electricity sales for a negligible benefit to endangered salmon.

"The region right now is in dire economic straits," said Ed Mosey, spokesman for the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets electricity generated at federal dams. "If you're doing things that are wasting money and getting no benefit, the question arises whether you ought to correct that."

Now, with salmon returns setting modern-day records, BPA officials argue the time is ripe to re-examine the summer spill regimen.

Dam managers will continue to consult with states, tribes and other federal agencies before deciding whether to curtail summer spill, said Witt Anderson, fisheries program manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates the dams in question.

At an estimated cost of $80 million in hydroelectric sales sacrificed during an average water year, federal officials are worried the summer spill program is needlessly extravagant.

They point to a recent calculation by a Northwest Power and Conservation Council analyst, who showed that spilling water in the summer may improve annual adult returns of endangered Snake River fall chinook by as few as 15 fish. Bonneville, which sells surplus energy at market rates to California utilities, would rather use the proceeds from surplus sales to reduce the wholesale rate it charges to Northwest utilities, officials said.

Tribal and environmental groups say power managers grossly underestimate the number of fish that benefit from summer spill. Thousands of non-endangered salmon benefit from summer spill, in addition to unknown numbers of endangered fall chinook in the Snake River.

"They're saying fish don't need water in the summer," said Nicole Cordan, policy and legal director for Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition of fishing and conservation groups. "We should be concerned about keeping our healthy populations healthy, as well as doing things to help our imperiled species."

Bruce Suzumoto, an analyst for the four-state Northwest Power and Conservation Council, said he focused on the benefit of spilling water for endangered Snake River fall chinook.

"Quite frankly, we don't know an awful lot about these fish," he said.

Suzumoto said that by the time the young fall chinook set out for the ocean in the summer, the Corps of Engineers is trying to scoop as many as possible aboard barges. Suzumoto said the corps corrals 90 percent of those fish, called smolts, on barges between Lower Granite and McNary dams, dropping the fish below Bonneville for a dam-free dash to the ocean.

Suzumoto figures only 1,500 smolts would die without summer spill, equating to just 15 adults returning in three or four years. Only 1 percent of salmon smolts will elude predators, survive the ocean and return to their home streams to spawn.

At $80 million for summer spill, utility consultant Randy Hardy said, "that's a $5 million fish."

Hardy, a former BPA administrator who now represents public and private utilities as a Seattle-based energy consultant, told members of the power and conservation council during their meeting Wednesday in Portland that ending spill is "a no-brainer." Hardy said it would be cheaper, and more effective, to increase predator control or buy out commercial fishermen in Alaska.

"For $5 million or $15 million, you can more than compensate for 15 endangered fish," he said in an interview.

Although the council has endorsed experiments in curtailing spill, Vancouver representative Larry Cassidy said he worries about the effect on several salmon runs that aren't currently listed as threatened or endangered.

Cassidy, one of two Washington members of the council, said fall chinook in the Klickitat, Wind, Deschutes, John Day and Yakima rivers benefit from water spilled over the three federal dams below the barge-hauling facility at McNary. Summer spill is expensive, Cassidy acknowledged, but the council needs more information before doing away with it.

"I'm not sure what I'm comfortable with yet," he said.

Others worry about the effect on the healthiest run of Columbia basin salmon ---- fall chinook that spawn in the last undammed reach of the Columbia, through the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Federal fisheries biologists have long viewed the practice of spilling water as a cornerstone principle in helping salmon and dams co-exist, a safer alternative than shooting fish through dam turbines. A higher percentage of fish perish from the ride through dam turbines, where they might clang off the turbine blades or suffer an effect similar to the bends experienced by deep-sea divers.

Tribal representatives argue that spilling water for fish is no more wasteful than dedicating water for irrigation, navigation or flood control ---- and it's the only practice intended to approximate the natural process of a river that's sustained tribal fishermen for thousands of years.

Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
Dam Spillway Practice Wastes Money, Federal Officials say
The Columbian, December 11, 2003

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