The emergency measure, which was implemented immediately and will continue through June 20, drew praise from salmon advocates and criticism from industry groups and several northwestern lawmakers.
"This is a very positive step," says Lorraine Bodi, co-director of American Rivers' Seattle office. "Not only does it mean more salmon will survive ... it means the federal government won't be able to barge as many fish around the dams."
The Fisheries Service has long maintained that barging is the best short-term method of getting juvenile salmon travelling from Idaho to the Pacific Ocean around the dams. But the agency says a dismal spring run of the chinook salmon, one of three runs listed under the Endangered Species Act, persuaded it to make an about face.
Fewer than 600 wild spring-summer chinook are expected to return to spawn this year, and scientists say perhaps only 200 will actually spawn.
Federal biologists say diverting water over dam spillways could prevent 80 percent of the fish from passing through hydroelectric turbines, where many are chopped to death. That could double the survival rate of migrating juvenile salmon from 5.2 percent to 10.5 percent, they say.
Salmon advocates say a court ruling in March may have pushed the change in policy as much as low salmon numbers. Federal Judge Malcolm Marsh ordered the Fisheries Service to reopen consultations with state and tribal biologists after finding the agency's determination that the eight dams posed no threat to the survival of the salmon "arbitrary and capricious' (HCN, 4/18/94). State and tribal biologists have long advocated spilling water to aid salmon migration, and the Fisheries Service's decision came just days before it made a progress report to Judge Marsh.
Despite Marsh's directive, the agency's decision to spill the dams caught many of its previous supporters off guard. Barging salmon allows hydroelectricity production to continue at full capacity and therefore had strong support from the Pacific Northwest's utilities, the Bonneville Power Administration and the aluminum industry, the largest buyer of power. Spilling takes water away from the turbines.
Instead of criticizing the economic effects of spilling water, the utilities, the aluminum industry and their political supporters raised questions about the effects on the salmon. They said the falling water would increase levels of nitrogen gas in the pools below the dams, killing juvenile salmon.
Dam operators have been routinely spilling millions of acre-feet of water over the dams in recent years with few negative effects. But those spills were done when the hydroelectric system had reached its capacity or when BPA was unable to find buyers for the electricity it could generate.
"It strikes me as very odd that we've exceeded nitrogen gas levels many times in the river and it never has seemed to cause the utilities and the aluminum companies a problem," said Michelle DeHart, director of the Fish Passage Center, a federally funded agency that monitors fish migration in the rivers.
Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, a barging supporter, insinuated that politics, not science, had caused the Fisheries Service's about-face.
"I am now told on good authority that on direct orders from our White House these agencies and their scientists were overruled so that ... the vice president could get directly involved in what I believe is a phenomenal dangerous precedent in the utilization of his power," Craig said.
Merritt Tuttle, the Fisheries Service's scientist in charge of salmon recovery in Portland, Ore., denied Craig's assertion.
"The recommendation was formed here in Portland," Tuttle said. "It was one the region supported and went forth with. It wasn't top down, it was bottom up."
The logic, he said, is that the marine agency previously had placed the fate of migrating salmon solely on the barging system. "Now we're spreading the risk between two promising techniques," he said.
Meanwhile, the BPA estimated it would lose $25 million in revenues due to the spill - about 1 percent of its annual $2.5 billion. If the spill extended to Aug. 31 to aid fall chinook, the losses would climb to $75 million. BPA said that the added cost could reduce its year-end cash supply to a contract trigger-point that would allow it to raise rates as much as 10 percent.
This prompted many news reporters and critics to predict a 10 percent rate increase for BPA customers. The actual increase would be only about 1 percent, BPA spokeswoman Dulcy Mahar said. That translates to an increase of about 25 to 35 cents in monthly light bills.
Republican Sens. Slade Gorton of Washington and Mark Hatfield of Oregon joined Craig in opposing the spill. They say even if the spill increases salmon survival, only 15 to 60 additional fish might return as adults as a result. Agency officials concede the benefits this year may not be dramatic because the spill was started so late in the migration season.
The most powerful player in the region, House Speaker Tom Foley, D-Wash., is a barging supporter. But instead of openly opposing the Fisheries Service, he called for spreading the costs of the spill to the nation through federal funding.
Tuttle said much more will have to be done if salmon are to recover. But the changes establish groundwork necessary for even more aggressive action in the future.
The Northwest Power Planning Council has called for drawing down reservoirs behind the four Snake River dams to speed water flow and help salmon to the ocean. Most drawdown proposals would require dam modifications. But Pat Ford, of Save our Wild Salmon in Boise, said drawdowns of 20 to 30 feet could be done next year and still keep adult salmon ladders and hydro turbines operating.
Next year, fisheries biologists plan to release as many as 100,000 endangered sockeye salmon raised in captivity. But scientists expect next year's returns to be as low or lower than this year.
"That means the 1995 migration will be crucial," Ford said.
* Rocky Barker
Rocky Barker reports for the Idaho Falls Post Register.