Dams' control getting trickier - Council tries to balance water level upstream & down


Washington State - 4/12/03 - 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. (Editor's Note: This story has been changed to correct the location of the Snake River.)

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."


Power panel backs salmon 'experiment'

Friday, April 11, 2003
By ERIK ROBINSON, Columbian staff writer

Federal managers should experiment with the amount of water dedicated to helping get imperiled salmon past 29 dams in the Columbia River basin, a key regional panel recommended Thursday.

The Northwest Power Planning Council finalized a controversial set of recommendations designed to protect imperiled salmon while giving dam managers additional flexibility to produce electricity.

The recommendations suggest dam managers "experiment" with curtailing the amount of water they release from huge upstream reservoirs to propel juvenile salmon toward the ocean.

The four-state council proposes experimenting with flow and spill targets established by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"This document represents a good regional consensus," said Vancouver's Larry Cassidy, one of two Washington representatives to the council. "There's something in it for everybody, and parts of it that nobody is satisfied with."

The recommendations come at a critical time for federal dam managers.

In September, a federal salmon-recovery plan faces the first "check-in" among three laid out in a biological opinion issued by the fisheries service in December 2000. The Clinton administration issued the report at the height of public pressure to breach four federal dams on the lower Snake River in Eastern Washington.

Environmental groups contend the federal government is failing to follow through on the commitments it made to improve fish survival through an "aggressive nonbreach" strategy of habitat improvements, hatchery reforms and upgrades to the 29 federal dams in the Columbia-Snake river basin.

The opinion also established fish-friendly targets for dumping water out of reservoirs and spilling water past dam turbines, but the Bonneville Power Administration paid little heed to the targets when power prices skyrocketed during the energy crisis in early 2001.

The power council's recommendations take the region even farther in the wrong direction for imperiled fish, said Andrew Englander, a policy analyst with Save our Wild Salmon, a coalition of conservation and fishing groups.

"This region is going to be faced with some pretty serious questions about how we move forward with salmon recovery," he said. "What we've seen is not only a complete unwillingness to implement the plan, but the council is now chipping away even at that."

Cassidy defended the final recommendations.

Cassidy, who first got involved in state and regional politics as a sportfishing activist 25 years ago, said he and fellow Washington representative Tom Karier pushed to keep an April 10 "refill target" for Lake Roosevelt. The target is supposed to guard against dam managers dumping so much water through Grand Coulee Dam that there's not enough water to propel juvenile salmon to the ocean in the late spring and early summer.

Even so, the recommendations suggest dam managers curtail the amount of water they dump out of Libby and Hungry Horse reservoirs. That water is supposed to help sea-going fish far downriver, but wildly fluctuating reservoirs have caused problems for boaters and resident fish in Montana.

Experimentation is unavoidable as people place more demands on the river, Cassidy said.

"As water becomes a more finite resource, the battle could come down to whether we keep the lights on or fish in the river," Cassidy said. "My concern as a fish advocate is: If we ever come to that point, the fish will lose."

Englander said it hasn't gotten to that point so far, even during the energy crisis of two years ago.

"We never saw it as a fish-versus-lights issue," he said. "It was a fish-versus-money issue."

The Northwest Power Planning Council will post its recommendations on operating federal dams in the Columbia River basin on its Web site under the heading "mainstem amendments" at www.nwcouncil.org


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