Push on to ease Columbia salmon rules


The Olympian

PORTLAND, OREGON-- With salmon returns up along with electric rates, agricultural and industrial users of the Columbia River are making their strongest push in 20 years to ease the rules designed to help fish survive a gauntlet of dams.
"The economics, the science and the politics have all lined up and are pointing in a new direction," said Darryll Olsen, a consultant representing Columbia-Snake River Irrigators and Eastern Oregon Irrigators.

But conservationists and Indian tribes counter that now is the time to strengthen the rules if 13 runs of salmon and steelhead are ever to be taken off the Endangered Species List.

"From our perspective, they are seeking to turn back two decades of progress in salmon recovery," said Don Sampson, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents four tribes. "Easing flow and spill will be moving in the wrong direction."

To help salmon past dams and static reservoirs, river flows are increased in spring so that young fish have an easier time migrating to the ocean, where they grow to adults. More water is also diverted to spillways to carry fish around turbines where many die.

The steps decrease hydroelectric power output by an average of 1,032 megawatts, worth about $228 million a year. That is enough to supply 700,000 homes. Restrictions have also led to a virtual freeze on permits for new water withdrawals from the Columbia and Snake rivers.

Two major proposals have surfaced moving the other way.

The Northwest Power Planning Council, which balances the needs of fish and wildlife against power production, has proposed reducing springtime flows in the Columbia Basin that push migrating salmon to the ocean, which would allow more water for power production, other fish, farming and industry.

A decision is due in February after a series of meetings around the Northwest, including one Tuesday night in Portland.

The Bonneville Power Administration, which is facing a possible $1.2 billion deficit over the next four years, has proposed reducing the spill at some dams to generate $15 million to $20 million more electricity each year. The federal agency markets about 45 percent of the Northwest's electricity.


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