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2001 Cascadia Times

Dry Run

The biggest salmon runs since the 1930s await a rude welcome the Columbia

by Paul Koberstein

In the Columbia Basin, 2001 was supposed to be the year of the salmon. Everything, for once, had lined up in the fish’s favor. A couple years of good ocean conditions, and before that healthy river flows, produced a run of spring Chinook this year that could exceed 360,000.

The Columbia River hasn’t seen that many spring Chinook since before Bonneville Dam was built in 1937. After spending $4 billion to bring the salmon back, you’d think the people of the Pacific Northwest would ensure the return was a triumphant one.

Not so. Instead, the saddest possible conditions await the salmon when the enter the Columbia River. Water in the Columbia is being drawn down to bedrock by the West’s unquenched thirst for electricity, and to bail out the Bonneville Power Administration. The salmon will get just a small fraction of the water they need, and it’s likely to be warm enough to be lethal in places.

“We may be wasting this golden opportunity to recharge the spring Chinook stocks,” said Bob Heineth, a fisheries biologist for the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission. “Things are going to be so desperate for fish all over the basin.”

Facing mounting financial problems and a power shortage, the Bonneville Power Administration is taking water and money designated for the salmon to maximize power production and pay its bills. On January 18, Bonneville declared an emergency giving itself the authority to put power sales, and its own survival, ahead of the salmon.

The low flows compare to 1977, the worst water year in the last 70 years. In 1977, Bonneville did not pay its debts to the U.S. Treasury, and that year salmon did not have enough water to get up the fish ladders and over the dams, Heineth says.

This year, Bonneville officials say they must nearly double rates to pay the bills. And even with the dams running full throttle, Bonneville says it must buy more power on the expensive market to meet demand. Normally, it gets enough through trades with California involving huge blocks of power. But given its own shortages, California is in worse shape.
Bonneville’s critics point out that the federal agency is crushing salmon as a way out of a crisis of its own making.

“The tragedy about this is that 21 years ago the Congress said the fish thing is an emergency,” said Ed Chaney of the Northwest Resource Information Center in Boise. “They passed a law saying thou shalt pass a plan giving fish equitable treatment. They gave Bonneville new authority to acquire resources to ensure a reliable power supply. I’ve fought those bastards 21 years and they still haven’t done that job. Today fish are going extinct and we’re having a power crisis.”

Bonneville does have some options. It could be buying up irrigation water rights, paying farmers to turn their land fallow to save water and power. Or people could simply conserve: Turn out the lights, turn off the computer. “We need to do everything we can to refill the reservoirs,” Heineth said.

For several years, Bonneville has not heeded warnings that it needed to beef up lagging conservation programs. Bonneville cut conservation investments from $170 million in 1994 to about $60 million in 1999, according to a Northwest Power Planning Council report. Some of the region’s utilities that had historically invested most heavily in conservation decreased their conservation spending from roughly $55 million to around $33 million, collectively, over this same period. For example, a typical conservation program might upgrade commercial lighting, which wastes about half the electricity consumed. At today’s energy prices, these kinds of changes can pay off quickly.

Even when energy prices were far lower, the programs were still hugely successful. Between 1980 and 1997, utility conservation programs in the region accounted for enough to power the cities of Seattle, Washington and Eugene, Oregon, combined – about 1,500 megawatts. At least another 2,400 megawatts of conservation or more could still be cheaply developed.

Of course, it takes time to go out and do those things. So, in January 2001, Bonneville, losing $50 million a week on power transactions, did the only thing it could: it turned up the juice. First it began draining the reservoir behind Grand Coulee Dam, and a few days later began to drain Dworshak on Idaho’s Clearwater River. In a normal year, Bonneville says its salmon costs exceed $400 million. This year Bonneville will give the salmon almost nothing.

“We’ve got this incredible crop of fish coming back, and we may never see this again,” Heineth said. “We’re saying, look Bonneville, you didn’t plan for any of these contingencies, conservation went out of the window. Everybody got complacent.”

The drama of this year’s return comes weeks after the government’s decision in December to let four Snake River dams stand. Federal agencies put together a package of actions they predicted would restore the salmon runs without dam removal. But just weeks later, that package has been tossed aside.

The salmon’s long-term prospects are have also been diminished by the crisis. Over the next several years, private utilities will be getting new licenses for hydro projects, many of which are built in the path of migrating salmon. When hydro licenses were first issued decades ago, they rarely required the dam owners to take care of fish. Today, though,in the process of renewing the licenses, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is requiring utilities to improve conditions for the fish.

But now FERC’s authority to force fish-friendly changes is being threatened. With the support of Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, utilities like Pacificorp and Idaho Power are pushing bills that would stop fish-friendly changes at the dams. Craig is using California as an argument for passing his bill. He claims dams have lost about 8 percent of their power to fish, but FERC says the losses have been about 1 percent.

“This is a short-term energy crisis,” said Brett Swift, a lawyer with American Rivers’ office in Portland. “These licenses will be in effect for 30 to 50 years. Some of these projects completely dewater rivers and block fish runs.”