In two weeks, a federal judge will hear arguments for and against an outrageous demand by anti-hydropower groups and the state of Oregon. If these litigators are successful, the Northwest’s eight large federal dams will be forced to further increase “spill”—water that is spilled over the dams, ostensibly to help young salmon reach the ocean more quickly.
Instead, their approach to spill will harm fish, cost electric ratepayers $40 million and undermine the hundreds of millions they already pay each year to protect listed salmon.
The plaintiffs purport to be acting on behalf of the region’s iconic salmon. And some spill proponents may genuinely believe increasing spill will help fish. But by ignoring the available science and pushing for harmful, even lethal new volumes of spill, hydro and dam opponents are revealing their true aim.
And—surprise—it’s not about the fish.
Too much spill can hurt
It’s well known that high spill levels at the dams can harm both juvenile salmon headed for the ocean and adults returning to their natal rivers. For young fish, too much spill can cause high levels of gas-bubble trauma, similar to human scuba divers who experience “the bends” when they ascend too quickly. Excessive spill also can prevent returning adult salmon from finding fish ladders at the dams, or cause them to fall back as they make their climb, wasting precious energy.
Yet the federal dams already spill an average of 30 to 40 percent of the river during the salmon’s spring migration. To spill more is at best a risky bet. Even the plaintiffs acknowledge the dangers, by peppering their demand with nine different conditions for when and how dam operators should reduce spill amounts to try to avoid harming the fish.
If Earthjustice, National Wildlife Federation, Oregon officials and the other litigators were primarily concerned with helping salmon, they simply wouldn’t be making a blanket, one-size-fits-all demand to increase spill to the outermost legal limit for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the entire spring period, at the four Lower Snake River and four Lower Columbia River dams.
Many factors affect salmon survival
If the plaintiffs truly wanted to help the fish, they would work together and not against the federal action agencies to accomplish what U.S. District Judge Michael Simon asked for in his May 2016 ruling on salmon stocks listed under the Endangered Species Act: A comprehensive look at all the factors that impact salmon during their lifecycle and all the potential paths to restoring listed fish.
Of course, those factors include the dams—but they also extend to improving fish hatchery practices, scrutinizing harvest limits, addressing predation by marine mammals and birds and other causes of salmon mortality.
Dams have always been an easier scapegoat. And plaintiffs know that more spill makes dams less efficient. That’s because any water spilled is water that cannot be used to generate clean, renewable hydropower. If dams spill too much water, they become more expensive to operate…and it becomes a whole lot easier for anti-dam groups to claim that we should remove them altogether.
Oregon’s arguments don’t add up
It’s particularly difficult to take the state of Oregon seriously, with its claim that more spill is necessary to increase adult salmon returns and prevent wild salmon from experiencing further “precipitous” declines. This is the same Oregon whose state Fish and Wildlife Commission just last month gave the thumbs-up once again to fishing with gill-nets on the Columbia River—despite the fact that the nets can’t distinguish between hatchery and wild salmon and are indiscriminate killers of endangered salmon.
Northwest RiverPartners, in our response to plaintiffs’ demands, makes other important arguments against more spill:
- More spill means less hydropower and loss of our region’s largest source of clean, carbon-free energy.
- More spill means higher power costs that will get passed on to Northwest families and businesses in their electric bills.
- More spill, when it harms or kills fish, undermines the billions of dollars those same families and businesses have invested, through charges on their monthly electricity bills, to improve fish passage at the dams and restore salmon habitat.
But the best argument against unreasonable spill is that it could end up hurting the very fish we’re all trying to protect.
Let’s be honest. Pushing for more spill isn’t about helping salmon. It’s about getting rid of dams—the salmon be damned.