Recently, U.S. District Court Judge James Redden rejected a plan by federal officials to limit summer spill programs on the Columbia and Snake rivers. He told the Seattle Times he didn’t want anyone to think that he ignored the interests of the region’s electric ratepayers, but in reality, Judge Redden’s ruling ignores both the ratepayers and the facts.
Currently, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) spends $77 million a year on spill programs to save threatened fall Chinook salmon. What is “spill?” In spill, water is routed away from the dam’s energy producing turbines where some fish can be killed or injured and sends it – and the fish – through a spillway door in the dam to the river below. When spill happens in July and August, it’s called “summer spill.”
However, recent studies have shown that because spill diverts water that would otherwise be used to produce electricity, it is the single most expensive fish conservation method ever devised. And summer spill is one of the least effective, because most of the threatened Chinook are far downstream by the time it’s implemented in July and August.
To address these problems, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and other agencies proposed to limit summer spill during August on the Ice Harbor, John Day, Dalles and Bonneville dams. Their studies acknowledged that reducing spill would kill 100 to 900 young Snake River fall Chinook; but the agencies proposed spending $9.6 million on mitigation measures they said would increase Chinook populations by 700 to 1,100 fish. (To put these numbers in perspective, 384,000 adult fish returned to the rivers last year.)
The BPA said the extra power it would be able to sell under the NMFS plan would allow it to cut charges to Northwest household and commercial ratepayers by $18 million to $28 million. Still, Judge Redden rejected the plan. Had he not ruled as he did, the dams would have generated the extra power starting in August.
But help may be on the way. U.S. Attorney Fred Disheroon said the federal government may seek an emergency appeal to withdraw the court order and thereby reactivate the plan. That would be good news for job providers and families. Hopefully, Disheroon will keep his promise and the court will act swiftly.
Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business.