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Thursday, April 15, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Pro / Con
Yes: Summer spill costly, ineffective

By Don Brunell and Shane Scott
Special to The Times

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A step in the right direction. That's how we'd characterize a federal proposal to suspend the August portion of "summer spill" on four dams on the Snake and lower Columbia rivers.

Currently, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) spends $77 million on summer spill during July and August to save 24 threatened fall chinook. That's more than $3 million per fish. Now, federal agencies want to suspend spill during the month of August over the next three years and implement alternatives to protect migrating salmon.

Even under the current proposal, we're still going to spend roughly $40 million a year to save 12 of these fish — that's not a balanced approach. Nonetheless, the federal compromise deserves our support because it's moving in the right direction. It implements alternatives that will produce more fish and allow more electricity to be produced, which benefits everyone through lower energy prices.

However, we can — and should — do more. According to recent scientific studies, eliminating summer spill entirely in favor of proven alternatives could save $75 million a year and put an additional 50,000 adult salmon in the rivers each year.

Everyone agrees we should save Northwest salmon runs. In fact, BPA's ratepayers have spent more than $6 billion over the years on fish programs. But summer spill is the most expensive and least effective fish-passage method in use.

Levey tomorrow

Collin Levey's column will appear on Friday this week.
Spill was started in the 1990s to get fish past dams without going through the turbines. Spill does not change the amount of water in the river, it just sends the water through a different part of the dam.

While the name "summer spill" sounds benign, the experience is not. Operators open an underwater "gate" in the dam, pulling fish 30 to 50 feet deeper in the water, then propelling them through the gate into the turbulent water on the other side of the dam. Some of them die, and many end up injured and disoriented, making them vulnerable to predators.

In fact, the survival rate for "spilled" salmon is only slightly better than for the fish that go through the turbines. But because spill diverts water that could otherwise be used to generate electricity, it is the most expensive method of fish passage.

Recent federal studies confirm that "summer spill," implemented during July and August, saves only about 24 adult, Endangered Species Act-threatened fish a year, because by late summer, 90 percent of the fall chinook salmon the spill is supposed to help are already past the dams and far downstream.

There is a better way. Two alternatives to summer spill identified by federal experts could increase adult salmon populations by more than 50,000 fish a year for less than $2 million:

• Expand a successful program that pays anglers to catch the northern pikeminnow, a predator that feeds on young salmon;

• Expand a proven program in the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River that protects juvenile salmon from becoming stranded in low water.

It is true that eliminating summer spill could reduce record runs of non-ESA-listed stocks by about 5 percent — but those fish are harvested by commercial fishermen anyway. Spending $77 million to save them is like paying $4,000 for a fish you buy in the grocery store.

By eliminating summer spill and implementing proven alternatives, we can increase salmon populations and reduce the cost of electricity in the Pacific Northwest. Why are lower electric rates important? Simply put, high-priced electricity kills jobs, a connection made painfully clear during the 2001 energy crisis.

The current federal proposal is a good first step, and we're confident the results will support further spill reductions in the future. Eliminating summer spill entirely is the answer. It's better for the salmon and for us.

Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business. Shane Scott is a fisheries biologist with the Public Power Council, an association of consumer-owned electric utilities, and former Columbia River policy coordinator for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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