The National Marine Fisheries Service is calling for big changes in the region’s hydropower system, having finally decided that dams are pushing Snake River salmon toward extinction.
Fish survival will no longer take a distant third behind flood control and hydropower, NMFS regional director Will Stelle said Wednesday.
The proposal could end up ruling the rivers. It’s basically the hydropower chapter of the Snake River salmon recovery plan, which will be released in late February for public comment.
NMFS’ proposal relies heavily on “salmon flush.” Water is stored in upstream reservoirs for springtime release to help young salmon migrate to the ocean. That means less water is available for valuable winter hydropower production.
The price for such changes will be paid by people who buy power produced at the dams.
Stelle called it an affordable expense that will restore the health of the Columbia River Basin.
“These actions will not only recover species listed as endangered, but will also help restore dozens of salmon stocks that are at historically low levels,” he said.
What the agency issued Wednesday is officially known as a “biological opinion.” States, tribes and other agencies have 10 days to review it.
Then, a federal judge will decide if it goes far enough to protect the salmon.
Judge Malcolm Marsh is doing that because, in 1993, NMFS issued an opinion saying that dam operations didn’t jeopardize the continued existence of the salmon. It was successfully sued by the Idaho Fish and Game Department and others who were upset that NMFS hadn’t demanded substantial changes in the hydropower system.
Stelle said he’s confident the latest opinion will pass muster with Marsh.
“This isn’t just tinkering,” Stelle said. “This is biologically sound.”
State and tribal biologists wanted NMFS to do what the Northwest Power Planning Council recently did: Call for drawdowns of multiple Snake and Columbia River reservoirs to speed up water and help salmon downstream.
The council wants to gradually phase out the salmon flush approach, which plays havoc with upstream reservoirs.
But NMFS took a more cautious approach. It proposed more studies on the effects of drawdowns, scheduling a decision on the issue for 1998 and action in the next century.
It would allow drawdowns at Lower Granite Reservoir starting in 1996, but only if it was certain a safe means had been found to get young fish around the dam at low water level.
“The issue of drawdowns remains very much on the table,” Stelle said. “It may indeed become part of the long-term solution.”
In areas where the NMFS plan differs from that of the power council, the fisheries service will prevail.
But Stelle said his agency will work with the council.
Council chairman Angus Duncan said Wednesday he was “surprised and reasonably gratified” at how well the NMFS opinion corresponds with the salmon strategy that council members approved in December.
“We wanted intermediate (drawdown) levels at Lower Granite and Little Goose dams as soon as possible, in 1996 if not ‘95. NMFS is a step behind us there, but not a mile or two behind us,” he said.
Both NMFS and the power council want to decrease the use of barging to get young fish around the dams, a tactic that Duncan calls “a life support system, not a cure.”
Environmentalists want to end barging. And, because they avidly want drawdowns, they were dismayed by NMFS’ latest proposal.
Jim Baker of the Sierra Club predicted that Judge Marsh will not approve it.
“The judge called for a major overhaul of the hydropower system. This is just a slight increase in the biological opinion he struck down last March,” said the Pullman activist.
Baker said drawdowns, which require dam alterations, will be less expensive in the long run than salmon flush, which require endless loss of winter power generation.
“I don’t see where NMFS or the fish get anything out of this,” he said. “It won’t save the fish, and it costs too much.”
Susan Ashe, public affairs manager for Kaiser Aluminum Corp., also thinks the NMFS proposal costs too much. Her company, which buys huge amounts of federal power, wantsneither salmon flush nor drawdowns.
“Last year we spent about $20 million on salmon recovery efforts through our rates,” she said. Under the NMFS proposal, “that would double.”
The Bonneville Power Administration now spends $350 million a year on fish and wildlife. Lost power sales account for much of that.
Ashe noted that NMFS didn’t say how many fish would be saved by its proposal. The agency ran short on time to come up with an estimate, Stelle said. It will be included in the final version of the opinion, to be presented to the judge Feb. 22.
Idaho senators Larry Craig and Dirk Kempthorne prefer the NMFS proposal to the power council plan.
The two Republicans like the federal agency’s promise not to force Idaho farmers to sell irrigation water to help with salmon flush; and not to deplete Dworshak Reservoir as much as it was drained last year.
“It’s encouraging some of Idaho’s concerns may have been taken into consideration,” Kempthorne said. “But I am going to remain skeptical until I see all the details.”
MEMO: This sidebar ran with story: THE SALMON OPINION Highlights of the National Marine Fisheries Service biological opinion: Improve flows. Keep more water in upstream reservoirs in the winter, so it’s available for release in the spring to help migrating salmon. Reservoirs: Don’t drain storage reservoirs such as Hungry Horse so much that local fish populations suffer in the summer. Drawdowns. Decide in 1998 whether to draw down the four Lower Snake River reservoirs or return them to natural river conditions, in order to provide faster flows. Draw down Lower Granite before that, if a way is found to get fish safely past the dam at lower elevations. On the Columbia River, drop John Day reservoir to minimum operating level and study a deeper drawdown. Spilling: Increase from four to seven the number of dams where water is sent over spillways to give young fish a safe ride around turbines. Closely monitor levels of dangerous gas that spilling injects into the water downstream. Barging: In dry years, when river conditions are bad for fish, continue transporting fish around dams and reservoirs. But provide more and better barges; improve methods for releasing fish downstream. What will it cost? An average $160 million per year, which will be paid by those who buy electricity through the Bonneville Power Administration. (That does not include Washington Water Power customers.) Residential power bills would go up about $4 monthly over the next decade. Companies buying wholesale would see a 6 percent increase by 2015.
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