Fish vs Electricity: A Pacific Northwest Balancing Act

PORTLAND, Oregon, May 18, 2001 (ENS) - Endangered salmon and steelhead will get some additional help this month despite continuing drought in the Pacific Northwest. The Bonneville Power Administration said Wednesday that it is releasing a limited amount of water from behind two of its hydropower dams to help juvenile endangered salmon and steelhead travel downstream to the ocean.

The spill of water will take place on a targeted basis at Bonneville and The Dalles dams on the Lower Columbia River.

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The Dalles Dam on the Lower Columbia River (Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
Earlier, federal officials had anticipated no release of water this spring because of near record low water levels. The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) had said it would not allow a spill if it jeopardized the reliability of the region's federal hydropower system.

But on Wednesday, BPA said it has reached a creative arrangement with Grant County Public Utility District, located in Washington state, that will free up some water for a spill in May while providing a backup plan for power reliability if water volumes fall short later.

BPA says its decision to go ahead now with the release of water even before getting an OK to the deal from the governing federal agency, reflects the urgency to capture an opportunity to help the endangered fish.

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Salmon jumps on the Lower Columbia River (Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, May is the premium month to spill at the Corps of Engineers' Lower Columbia River dams because peak numbers of endangered fish are migrating downstream during this month. Waiting to spill could greatly reduce benefits to the salmon and steelhead.

If little rain falls before July, the Grant County Public Utility District has agreed to forego a portion of the water it now plans to spill in the mid-section of the Columbia River in late spring or summer.

That Grant County water will be used to generate power for the Bonneville Power Administration. It will replace power BPA will not produce as a result of the water it will spill for fish survival in May.

The Bonneville Power Administration would cover Grant's operations and maintenance costs of the power generation.

If water conditions improve between now and July, BPA should not need to call on the contingency exchange plan.

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BPA Acting Administrator Stephen Wright (Photo courtesy BPA)
"We are trying to carry out a very difficult balancing act between the need to maintain a reliable power supply and the need to protect our endangered fish," BPA's Acting Administrator Stephen Wright said. "We are trying to find truly creative solutions, and we think this is one."

Don Godard, general manager of the Grant Public Utility District, said, "This agreement makes sense for listed fish and for energy consumers in the Northwest."

The proposed arrangement is subject to approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. On Wednesday, BPA asked the commission for expedited approval for the contingent spill exchange agreement based on support from the National Marine Fisheries Service and the public utility district.

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Grant County Public Utility District general manager Don Godard (Photo courtesy GCPUD)
In its own filing to the commission, Grant Public Utility District (PUD) made it clear that the agreement depends on concurrence of the principal governmental agencies and tribes, specifically Washington Governor Gary Locke, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Northwest Power Planning Council and the Yakama Indian Nation.

Fisheries managers say a little water for the fish is better than none at all. "We're disappointed this couldn't be more, but, in view of this year's conditions, we're glad to get at least some protection for ESA-listed fish," said Brian Brown of the National Marine Fisheries Service. "It hasn't been easy, and we appreciate how hard all of the players worked to allow this to happen.''

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Dams in the Columbia River system (Map courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
Wright said many elements played into BPA's decision to move ahead with spill right now. "We had to evaluate a number of risks. We had to ensure the reliability of the Northwest's power supply and the financial viability of the agency. The proposed deal with Grant PUD should allow limited spill now without leaving the system worse off in terms of reliability."

Grant Public Utility District owns and operates Priest Rapids and Wanapum dams in central Washington. These dams have a generating capacity of 2,000 megawatts, and are currently spilling about 50 percent of the river flow to protect young migrating fish, including spring chinook salmon and steelhead which are federally listed as endangered.

Under the Bonneville Power Administration's water release plan, the equivalent of 300 megawatts of electricity will be spilled in May, less than one-third the amount called for in National Marine Fisheries Service' Biological Opinion, which assumes more normal rainfall conditions. The spill regime equals 30 percent of the water flow at The Dalles Dam, and 50,000 cubic feet per second of spill at Bonneville Dam, each for 24 hours a day for a period of about three weeks.

The Columbia River Basin is North America's fourth largest, draining about 250,000 square miles and extending throughout the Pacific Northwest and into Canada. There are over 250 reservoirs and around 150 hydroelectric projects in the basin, including 18 mainstem dams on the Columbia and its main tributary, the Snake River.