Salmon to Suffer With Reduced Summer Water Spill

PORTLAND, Oregon, April 1, 2004 (ENS) - Federal officials have proposed massive reductions in summer spill - the practice of releasing water over federal dams to help young salmon migrate to the sea in the summer. Salmon advocates say the proposal further undermines the faltering federal plan to protect and restore Northwest salmon and steelhead and will kill tens of thousands of fish.

Summer spill allows fish to move past dams without going through the turbines - an impediment often lethal to the migrating salmon.

But utility executives are keen to bypass the requirement, which they say is expensive, ineffective and unnecessary.

Water diverted into spill gates - instead of through spinning turbines - reduces the output of hydroelectric facilities.

The proposal affects four dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. It eliminates August spill from all four dams and reduces the spill during July from two dams on the Columbia River. salmon

Wild salmon on the Snake River. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
The plan will save some $35 million to $45 million a year, according to Steve Wright, administrator of Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), the federal agency that oversees 31 federal hydroelectric projects in the region.

"We want fish in our rivers and low-cost electric power," Wright said. "We are going to do the same or better at saving fish and contributing to fish recovery - and at saving money."

Federal officials say the proposal, announced by BPA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and NOAA Fisheries, includes two primary measures to offset reductions in summer spill - increased control of northern pikeminnow, a predatory fish that feeed on juvenile salmon, and adjusted spill from the John Day Dam on the Columbia River to protect juvenile chinook salmon from stranding.

But officials acknowledged that these two actions alone do not make up for the effects of the spill change. The agencies have asked for comments on other actions to ensure the spill proposal does not adversely harm salmon and steelhead populations.

"We are interested in ensuring that reductions in summer spill will be matched with equivalent biological benefit for salmon with greater efficiency," said Bob Lohn, Northwest regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries, which must approve the proposal. "We look forward to working with our regional counterparts to achieve those goals."

Salmon advocates say the proposal weakens the massive and faltering federal effort to restore wild salmon and runs counter to ample scientific evidence that finds summer spill is critical to salmon restoration efforts. JohnDayDam

The proposal calls for reduced spills at John Day Dam on the Columbia River. (Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
"Summer spill is the single most effective means for passing fish through the system," said Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, the technical support and coordinating agency for fishery management policies of the Columbia Basin's four treaty tribes.

"The proposal simply ignores the science - science that is supported by the states and tribes of the region as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service," Hudson said. "The end result will have a dramatic impact on tribal fisheries and BPA's inadequate proposal to offset this harm is an insult to the fishing community."

The fisheries agencies of the states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho and biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have all raised serous concerns about the reduction of summer spill.

In addition to direct impacts like slower migration times, increased predation and hotter river temperatures, the proposal will also require more fish to be trucked and barged downriver.

Critics of the BPA's plan say the agency's plea for economic relief is disingenuous - it ended fiscal year 2003 with a $550 million surplus.

There is added concern that the proposal guts the federal salmon plan.

"It is important not to look at this proposal in isolation," said Rob Masonis of American Rivers. "The reality is for that we have an inadequate [federal plan] that has been inadequately implemented and under funded. One of the very few reliable things in that plan is the spill program."

U.S. District Court Judge James Redden ruled in May 2003 that the plan violated the Endangered Species Act because there was no certainty that the recommended actions in the plan would be carried out. Bush

In August 2003 President George W. Bush told an audience at Washington's Ice Harbor Dam that the disappearance of salmon from the Columbia and Snake Rivers would be "a huge loss." (Photo by Paul Morse courtesy White House)
Fear over the court's reaction to reducing summer spills kept federal managers from approving the policy for the BPA in summer 2003.

Judge Redden ordered the Bush administration to revise it by June 2004.

"At a very time when our current [plan] has been sent back to the drawing board for strengthening, BPA and utilities are weakening it," said Jim Martin, former chief of fisheries for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "It revives the politics of extinction and unfairness that got us into this spot to begin with."

The proposal is not about saving salmon, Martin added, is it about money.

"BPA's proposal takes us exactly in the wrong direction by putting more burden on the fish and fishing communities to create more flexibility for the hydrosystem," said Martin, a current board member of the National Wildlife Federation. "I spent my entire life working on these fish, and I continue to be disappointed by where this administration, and BPA in particular, is headed."

The agencies will accept comments on the plan through April 7, 2004 and intend to render a decision by the end of the month.