The biggest salmon runs since the 1930s await a rude welcome the Columbia
In the Columbia Basin, 2001 was supposed to be the year of the salmon. Everything, for once, had lined up in the fishs 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.
Columbia River hasnt seen that many spring Chinook since before
Bonneville Dam was built in 1937. After spending $4 billion to bring the
salmon back, youd think the people of the Pacific Northwest would
ensure the return was a triumphant one.
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 Wests 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 its likely to be warm enough
to be lethal in places.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Ive fought
those bastards 21 years and they still havent done that job. Today
fish are going extinct and were having a power crisis.
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.
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 regions 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 todays energy prices, these kinds of changes
can pay off quickly.
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.
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 Idahos Clearwater River. In a normal year, Bonneville says its
salmon costs exceed $400 million. This year Bonneville will give the salmon
got this incredible crop of fish coming back, and we may never see this
again, Heineth said. Were saying, look Bonneville, you
didnt plan for any of these contingencies, conservation went out
of the window. Everybody got complacent.
drama of this years return comes weeks after the governments
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
salmons 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.
now FERCs 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.