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Our View: Feds cannot afford to whittle away at salmon recovery

The federal government wants to use less water to help rare salmon reach the ocean, and use more water to produce power.

This is no way to save a wild icon of the Northwest and help Idaho recover a salmon fishery that could be worth millions of dollars. And it´s certainly no way for the federal government to honor its commitments to save salmon.

If the Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers go ahead with this plan, the feds will spill less water over the Columbia River´s dams. Those spills are important because they help thousands of salmon smolts over the downstream dams and around the power turbines that can kill them.

Instead of spilling the water, the BPA would use it to generate more hydropower — about $47 million worth, BPA spokesman Mike Hansen said Wednesday. Some of that power could be sold in California; some might go to Canada. The feds would put about $12 million of the money into a menu of fish conservation plans, such as fighting natural predators or improving habitat and water flows.

That leaves about $35 million in savings, which the BPA would use to scale back an Oct. 1 rate increase from a projected 5 percent to just 3 percent, Hansen said.

We can´t criticize the idea of trying to save ratepayers some money, but we don´t like the costs attached. By the BPA´s own estimates, cutting back the spill would keep thousands of salmon smolts from migrating to the Pacific. These are the young fish that return — albeit in much smaller numbers — to spawn. In downplaying the salmon losses, the BPA points to the numbers for Snake River fall chinook. Cutting back the spill would kill only 500 Snake River fall chinook smolts, which in turn translates to only two to 20 fewer adult chinook returning to the Snake. Losses would be less than one-half of 1 percent, Hansen said.

But the Snake River fall chinook are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. When every scarce chinook should count, BPA is counting on making money on the power market, and telling the region that we can have it all. “We´re going to do the same or better at saving fish and contributing to fish recovery — and at saving money,” BPA chief Steve Wright says.

Not exactly. The feds are trying to piece together a plan to make up for the salmon that would die if the spill is curtailed.

We wish the region´s governors, including Idaho´s Dirk Kempthorne, were more skeptical. The governors support the BPA-Corps plan, provided a third federal agency, NOAA Fisheries, decides it does not hurt endangered and threatened fish.

In other words, the governors are banking on the promise that some new lineup of recovery plans will keep fish intact. We´re not convinced. If the feds can save more salmon by controlling the pikeminnows and birds that eat salmon, or improving water flows so young fish don´t get stranded in the river, then do it. But the feds shouldn´t scale back a strategy that — according to the BPA´s own numbers — helps young fish reach the Pacific.

They should not renege on commitments to salmon. The summer spills are a component of the feds´ 2000 “biological opinion,” a plan to run the Columbia River dams while preserving endangered fish. U.S. District Judge James Redden already has said the plan is inadequate. It makes no sense at all to whittle away at it.

Saving ratepayer money is a worthwhile objective. But saving the salmon is important, too.

Edition Date: 04-08-2004





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