Faced with the lowest return of Snake River spring-summer chinook salmon in history, the National Marine Fisheries Service ordered water and salmon spilled over eight Columbia and Snake river dams May 10.
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
"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.
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,
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
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.
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.
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
"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
"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
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.
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.
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
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
"That means the 1995 migration will be
crucial," Ford said.
Rocky Barker reports
for the Idaho Falls Post Register.