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Spill Baby Spill

Bonneville dam spillway on the Columbia River in Oregon

Spill Baby, Spill

By Pat Hoglund

Make no mistake, the West has its issues when it comes to salmon and steelhead management. Most all of them are fixable. It just takes convincing the stakeholders that saving salmon and steelhead is a priority. One issue rearing its head again is spilling water over the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

Since the early 2000s we’ve seen the effects of spilling, most all of them positive. If you recall, prior to a federally mandated court order in 2004 that required spilling water over dams at crucial periods of smolt outmigration, most juvenile salmon and steelhead were either barged around the dams, or left to their own fate and passed through the dams’ turbines, which invariably sliced and diced them like a Veg-O-Matic. Barging smolts has proven ineffective for a variety of reasons, and is slowly going away. Spilling, meanwhile, is a method that the scientific community has embraced while the power industry digs its heels into the concrete.

When Judge James Redden required the National Marine Fisheries Service (now NOAA) to implement a spill plan in 2004, we quickly saw the benefits. Anecdotally, we’ve seen record returns of salmon and steelhead, but more importantly we have could document downstream smolt passage. Thanks to the development and use of the Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tags, we can track when a salmon or steelhead passes through a dam as a juvenile, and it is again detected when it returns as an adult. Per the Fish Passage Center, which monitors fish passage at dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers, officials are now able to identify specific flow, spill, temperature and other environmental variables when a juvenile fish migrates downstream. They’re also able to determine if a fish was transported by barge, passed undetected through spill or turbines, or if it passed the dam via the bypass system where the PIT tag system is in place. Using statistical analyses, the FPC proved there is a higher survival rate among spring, summer and fall Chinook, sockeye and steelhead. In its report, the FPC officials concluded: “Planned spill programs are proving to be one of the most important tools in the arsenal used in recovery of endangered species.”

If you need further evidence, look to 2015 when we saw record returns of Chinook (Spring Chinook 222,480; summer Chinook 161,735; and fall Chinook 954,866). All told there were 1,337,101 adult salmon that passed over Bonneville Dam. That doesn’t account the thousands that were caught by sport and commercial fishing.

While spilling water over the dams is a variable that we can control, what we can’t control is what happens when they reach the ocean. Need I remind you of the ‘Blob’? Look at last year’s returns and you’ll be reminded that juvenile salmon and steelhead met unfriendly ocean conditions and their fate was in the balance. But getting them to the ocean is very doable. If flows at critical times (spring) are maintained.

Since Judge Redden made his initial ruling in 2004, many lawsuits have been filed to either enforce it, appeal it or modify it. It has been a confusing and involved issue to follow, one that is rife with misinformation and differing opinions. Most recently, Judge Michael H. Simon ordered NOAA to rewrite its plan to recover endangered salmon and steelhead, and that plan includes starting to increase spilling April 3, 2018. Historically, spilling occurred in late April. Biologists contend that spilling earlier in the year will ensure more juvenile salmon and steelhead make it to the ocean. The pushback, of course, stems from the hydropower industry, which contends that the full benefits of spill are not known. That’s like to listening to EPA Director Scott Pruitt talk about global warming.

Like all things it comes down to is money. Where it pertains to salmon and steelhead, and spilling water over the dams, is that it will cost $40 million dollars annually in lost power revenue to the Bonneville Power Administration. Considering that’s approximately 50 to 70 cents per month on a monthly power bill, (a meager 1 percent of the BPA’s annual budget) it’s a pittance. Moreover, it’s a small price to pay knowing that the increased spills will benefit endangered salmon and steelhead populations. The long-term benefits of salmon and steelhead recovery are too great to put a price tag on, especially when you’re talking less than $10 a year per household in the Pacific Northwest.

So, we wait for Judge Simon to rule again in favor of the fish and with baited breath we hope the words, “Spill baby, spill!” are included in his ruling.


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