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Truth Joins Salmon as Casualty of Water Spill Wars

WASHINGTON - Twenty-four salmon will swim to the ends of the oceans and back again while truth is getting its toes wet, it seems.

Rising salmon numbers after years of demise have put them in the thick of the "always contentious battle over cheap juice" in the region, said Charles Hudson, communications director for Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

The rumor in this case is that 24 returning salmon cost the region $38 million in hydroelectric generating capacity lost to dam water spills. The deliberate spills are designed to assist juvenile salmon in their journey to the Pacific Ocean, where they fatten and gain strength for their return journey.

But the lost hydroelectric generating capacity represented by the spills results in higher electricity rates for the whole region, according to this particular rumor, with only 24 home-from-the-ocean salmon to show for it.

"To say it's a misrepresentation doesn't even begin to ... what a misrepresentation it is," Hudson said. The actual number of salmon that return throughout the Columbia River Basin due to spill is always up for debate, but most estimates put it in the multiple tens of thousands annually.

Speaking for the commission Hudson added, "We believe unequivocally that spill is the best way to pass juvenile salmon through the turbines [the electricity generating engines at dams] - with dams in place it is the best way."

Bonneville Power Administration, the region's leading electricity marketing agency, is under consumer pressure to fulfill rate-reduction promises it made in a previous economic crisis, in return for permission to raise its rates at that time, Hudson said.

In seeking a way to fulfill its promises, BPA seized upon a pilot test plan for limited spill reductions, and began to present it as a permanent region-wide rollback in summer water spill at dams on the Columbia River. Less water spilled for salmon would mean more electricity for BPA to market to the region's public utilities districts, and the rising supply would result in lower prices for consumers, getting BPA off the hook for its earlier promises. Meanwhile, the higher salmon returns made it politically feasible to dwell on spill, even though reducing spill is known to reduce the number of juvenile salmon that make it to sea.

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"They went after the thing they thought they could get politically," Hudson said.

Fifty-four Northwest tribes have condemned the BPA spill-reduction proposal as damaging to salmon, and now Alaska Natives have joined them.

But that didn't stop the now-notorious distortion to the effect that 24 salmon cost the Northwest $38 million. A public utilities district in the region came up with it in the course of lobbying BPA and public opinion for less spill, and so lower rates for its customers.

But the figures are drawn from a limited study of only one salmon run, the fall Chinook, at only one Columbia River dam, Ice Harbor. The numbers doctors then extrapolated from that limited study to all salmon runs at dams throughout the Columbia River Basin to come up with their 24-for-$38 million sound bite. Furthermore, independent scientific review had already found the scientific modeling in the study "marginally useful" in studying only juvenile salmon, at Bonneville Dam only.

In other words, the study provided no valid way, based on the spill at Bonneville Dam, to determine an "adult equivalent" of returned mature salmon from juvenile salmon on their way to sea - many less mature salmon returned to Ice Harbor, where the federal commitment to barging salmon past dams is in full force (lower returns would be expected below Ice Harbor, as barging salmon on their seaward journey is generally considered to reduce their returning numbers).

In the background of all this is a federal plan to protect Northwest salmon. A federal judge found it inadequate and ordered improvements, but left it in place during a one-year remand of the plan to lower courts for reconsideration. A summer water spill program at Northwest dams is part of the still legally binding plan.

"We believe this is why the federal agencies have been doing this [the spill reduction proposal] by sleight-of-hand," Hudson said. "There's been nothing firm put on paper... They've got a plan they're verbally shopping around."

In view of the already-promised pricing benefits electricity consumers might expect to get for agreeing to future spill reductions, he added, "Blackmail is not too strong a word."

Congress is beginning to look beyond the 24-for-$38 million numbers that got so much attention, Hudson said. The week of March 15, Patricia Zell of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs was in Portland for meetings with CRITFC and BPA, he added.