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Commentaries and editorials

BPA Plan Would
Cut Summer Dam Spill

by Chris Mulick, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, June 9, 2004

The Bonneville Power Administration released a watered-down proposal Tuesday to scale back summer spilling at Northwest dams by 39 percent, allowing it to boost revenues by as much as $31 million.

That would lower rates 1 percent to 2 percent from where they otherwise would be. But the one-year plan is less aggressive than an earlier version that would have curtailed July and August spill by about 55 percent to generate as much as $45 million.

"We have cut back our proposal fairly substantially," said BPA Administrator Steve Wright.

Even so, the revised plan remains at the heart of a controversial policy discussion that could have greater ramifications in future years.

Spilling water over dams instead of running it through turbines is widely considered to provide the safest passage for migrating fish and is the hallmark of the Bush administration's "aggressive nonbreach" approach to fish recovery.

But federal agency heads began acknowledging last year that spilling water in July and August -- when there are the fewest fish in the river system -- has negligible biological benefit while costing the region millions in lost hydropower sales.

They have tooled and re-tooled proposals ever since to scale the program back over the protests of tribes and environmentalists.

The hang-up has been finding the right mix of new measures to boost fish survival in other cheaper ways.

The plan released Tuesday calls for ending spill operations at Bonneville and The Dalles dams at the end of July and at Ice Harbor and John Day dams Aug. 22. That would generate somewhere between $20 million and $31 million in extra hydropower sales after $10 million is spent on new fish spending elsewhere.

That spending would boost a predator control program, stabilize flows in the Hanford Reach and pay for new habitat restoration projects and hatchery activities. It also would pay for new water releases from Brownlee Reservoir in Idaho to boost flows in the Snake River, a new addition to the list.

Federal fish agencies believe those measures will at least make up for the five to 36 fish listed under the Endangered Species Act and the 1,545 to 12,360 unlisted fish that would be killed as a result of reducing spill.

Agencies will accept public comment at a meeting Monday in Portland before the plan is shipped to NOAA Fisheries and eventually the Army Corps of Engineers for fine-tuning. That would give a federal judge overseeing the rewrite of the Columbia Basin fish recovery plan a chance to review it in time for it to be implemented next month.

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, which had threatened to sue the federal government if it proceeded, has seen nothing that would pull that threat off the table, said Rick George, who manages the treaty rights program for the tribes.

And other environmentalists continue to decry the agencies' plans to curtail spill, and said the list of environmental tradeoffs include the kinds of things that should be done anyway.

"Spill is the one dependable way to help fish get through the hydro system and they should be keeping it in place," said Michael Garrity, a spokesman from American Rivers, pointing to the swelling fish runs seen in recent years. "Pulling back now doesn't make sense."

"It doesn't appear to make economic sense, either," said Jan Hasselman, an attorney for the National Wildlife Federation, saying the new revenue that would be generated would amount to "pennies per month" for the typical ratepayer.

U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, a Pasco Republican, agreed on that point. In a news release he called the new plan "very weak tea" and criticized summer spill for being "wasteful."

"Half a loaf is better than none but I'm certainly disappointed we didn't make more progress," said Benton REA Manager Chuck Dawsey.

In a normal water year, the spill reduction program combined with Bonneville spending cuts and a recent agreement over payments due to two investor-owned utilities could have provided for a more substantial rate relief.

Instead, those efforts are likely to merely hold down the fort while the region suffers through a fifth-straight, below-average water year, limiting hydropower production.

"We're thinking it's going to be about a break-even year," Wright said.

Chris Mulick
BPA Plan Would Cut Summer Dam Spill
Tri-City Herald, June 9, 2004

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