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Thursday, February 15, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Head-on clash over salmon and power

Seattle Times staff reporter

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If the energy crisis seems bad now, wait until summer when a stubborn winter drought and power meltdown in California force the tough Northwest choice head on: generate power or protect fish.

Hydropower dams have been spilling extra water this winter to generate power for the watt-starved Northwest. But starting in April, they'll need more water for two things: flushing juvenile salmon through dam spillways and increasing the flow to cool the rivers.

Then when it gets hot this summer, the water will be the most scarce, the salmon will need it the most and California's power needs will be the most acute. At the same time, turning water into kilowatts could be tempting to a cash-strapped Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), which markets surplus power from the Columbia Basin dams.

The spill and flow programs - always controversial - will be even more so this year.

Fish to sea

Juvenile salmon begin their annual downstream migration to the sea in mid-April, a journey that continues through summer.

To help them survive passage through the thirteen dams on the Columbia and Snake river hydropower system, fish managers send water through spillways in spring and summer. They also boost the volume of water at both times in the river by tapping reservoirs in Idaho, Canada and Montana through a program called flow augmentation.

The spill program boosts survival because the spillways are a slightly safer route through the dams than dam turbines or bypass systems.

Flow augmentation speeds the journey to the sea: The more water there is, the faster it moves. The water also helps cool lethal summer reservoir temperatures that can reach 72 degrees. Increasing flows also helps create more natural river conditions for the fish.

Scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service have found little evidence that salmon are more likely to survive if they get to the ocean quicker.

But scientists see a direct link between higher flows and survival in the summer and fall. They don't know whether it's because of lower temperatures, cloudier water - which helps fish hide from predators - or higher flow, but improved survival is clear.

In a low-water year, spill means lost power generation, because water is run only through dam spillways instead of turbines that create electricity.

Water used for flow augmentation goes through turbines, but the demand for power is lower in spring and therefore additional kilowatts created then are worth less money. If it weren't for the fish - and federal mandates to protect them - BPA would store the water and generate surplus power in the summer, when it is worth much more. Flow augmentation is an especially hot issue in Idaho and Montana, where farmers, recreationists and others want reservoirs full. Idaho, in particular, has always objected to the spring flow-augmentation program.

"We shouldn't be wasting water on it," said Mike Field, who represents Idaho on the Northwest Power Planning Council, which is supposed to monitors the system for the benefit of power users and fish.

"Irrigators hate to waste water on something that doesn't work. Trying to shove this down their throats this year will be an out and out war. It's stupid and just makes irrigators unwilling to work with us on anything else."

The summer spill program isn't much more popular: Despite its scientific justification, Idahoans don't value the threatened fall chinook it helps because they are not a sport fish, Field said.

Political bind

The politics of the situation also put power and fish managers in a bind.

California could be friend or foe in Northwest efforts to maintain direct access to cheap BPA hydropower.

"Do the math," said Randy Hardy, an independent energy consultant and former BPA administrator. California has 54 votes in Congress; the four Northwestern states of Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana have 25. "Those aren't good odds," he said.

"The fact that you would provide water for fish, even though they are endangered, and put out the lights for millions of Californians is stupefying to California elected officials."

If the Northwest saved water instead of sending it down river for fish, the water would be available to help California during summer emergencies, he said.

Meanwhile, Washington is facing an energy shortage of its own. Too few power plants have been built to keep up with demand.

Since 1973, energy consumption has risen by 5,300 average megawatts in Washington, according to Jeff King, senior resource analyst for the Northwest Power Planning Council. During the same time, only 2,800 average megawatts of power have been added, he said.

Eleven new power plants could be on their way in Washington, including a major wind-powered plant on the Oregon, Washington border. But many of those plants are still in the permitting process, still looking for financing, or trying to secure enough customers to go forward.

Some may never be built: They require miles of new natural-gas pipelines, which are expensive to build and difficult to get through the permit process.

Bad news about water

The power crunch has caught the region by surprise, in part, because of the abundant water in the hydropower system during the past four years.

Some of the worst water news is in the Columbia Basin, where snow pack is half of normal, a near all-time low. Snow pack is the fuel for 45 percent of the region's energy supply.

Precipitation for the water year that began Oct. 1 is less than two thirds of normal, and there's not much time to catch up: snow pack usually reaches its maximum in late March and early April.

California, in crisis even as their power needs are at winter-time lows, will see consumption soar when the air conditioners click on. California typically buys Northwest power in the summer, but because of the drought the Northwest won't have it to sell.

By the end of January, the BPA had spent $500 million to buy power to ease the Northwest shortage. That's as much money as the agency had budgeted for that purpose for the entire year.

In part to remain financially stable, the agency has for six days this winter run the hydropower system harder than usual, drafting reservoirs to run turbines when the water should be stored for fish, officials said.

The action is allowed under the Endangered Species Act in the case of a power emergency.

Another power emergency was declared Monday; a cold snap due in the region tomorrow will keep turbines turning.

Analysts at the power-planning council already are devising scenarios under which spill for fish could be reduced this spring, said Dick Watson, manager of power programs for the council.

Cutting spill by 35 percent could save BPA between $650 million and $1.3 billion, depending on the cost of kilowatts. That could prove tempting to an agency in a cash crunch.

Decisions have yet to be made about spill. But flow augmentation will certainly be reduced. "The water just isn't there," Watson said.

He had only one word for this summer: "Ugly.

"This would be a difficult summer unless we get precipitation of Biblical proportions under any circumstances," Watson said. "The trade-offs we are now faced with just make it that much tougher."

Lynda Mapes can be reached at 206-464-2736 or at lmapes@seattletimes.com.

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