Panel proposes curtailing springtime flow for salmon

Tuesday, November 5, 2002
By ERIK ROBINSON, Columbian staff writer

Eastern Washington - Columbia River power managers would curtail the amount of water dedicated to speed young salmon to the Pacific Ocean in the spring, under a proposal being floated by the Northwest Power Planning Council.

The four-state panel's proposal met quick criticism from environmental groups.

Council chairman Larry Cassidy, a Vancouver resident, said council members realized the proposal challenges conventional wisdom.

"This is a debate we believe is widely needed," Cassidy said. "In the past, we've gone with certain policies because that's the way we've always done it. We have to drive this program based on the best available science."

Though the council's role is advisory, its recommendations carry weight with federal agencies that operate the network of 29 federal dams in the basin.

Biologists have long asked river managers to release water from upstream reservoirs in the spring to better simulate natural conditions. During last year's drought, however, federal river managers sharply curtailed the amount of water that was supposed to be released for fish under a biological opinion written by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The council's latest proposal, approved by a 7-1 vote, calls into question a variety of actions designed to help fish.

"Scientific and policy uncertainty continue to plague a number of mainstem actions intended to benefit anadromous fish," the report stated, "leading to an inability to measure the extent of the benefits gained and to great differences of opinion as to the value of continuing these actions."

Biologists generally believe spilling water over dams is safer for juvenile fish than forcing them through turbines or bypass systems.

But the council's report questions whether spilling water might be doing more harm than good, by increasing the number of potentially fatal gas bubbles created when water splashes below the dam.

One federal biologist took issue with that assertion.

"We would like to review the scientific information that leads them to think that the current spill program, at gas levels that the states have approved, is a detriment to fish," said Jim Ruff, branch chief of the Columbia power system for NMFS. "In all the years we have been monitoring, we have not seen any harm to significant numbers of fish."

Cassidy acknowledged that "it's pretty clear" that spilling water is the best route for juvenile salmon migrating to the ocean. He added that the council rejected an amendment offered by Montana representatives that would have recommended reducing spill by half.

Even so, Cassidy pointed out there remains scientific uncertainty about the benefits.

"This science should have been in place several years ago," Cassidy said. "But it clearly has not been."

A recent report by the NMFS science center in Seattle stated flow management appeared to provide salmon survival benefits, but it called those benefits "difficult and somewhat speculative to quantify."

Eric Bloch, an Oregon member of the council who cast the lone dissenting vote, called the proposal a "fire, aim, ready" approach.

Bloch supported an alternative that would have increased the amount of water flowing out of storage reservoirs in the spring and also boosting the amount of water spilled over dams. Bloch said the council's proposal swings river management in the other direction, potentially boosting power production at the expense of imperiled salmon.

Representatives of environmental groups agreed.

"The proposed amendments turn the clock back 20 or 30 years, an attempt to convince the public that fish don't need water," said Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. "The council will have a tough time proving that what they're proposing will succeed for the businesses and communities that rely on salmon."

To view the Northwest Power Planning Council's draft mainstem amendments to its Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Program, check /library/2002 /2002-16.htm


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