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Sustainable Business Oregon
April 26, 2012

Salmon may benefit from spilling excess water

Salmon advocates say they have new information that shows that spilling more water over dams may actually benefit fish. The news has implications for wind power generators as they look toward another spring season of possible shutdowns.

Though it isn’t yet clear whether Northwest power generators face another season of power oversupply — a condition that stems from high water levels in the Federal Columbia River Power System, which peak simultaneously with wind speeds in spring — several factors indicate another rough season could lie ahead.

So far, the Northwest has experienced an above-average water year, with the last water forecast showing levels 110 percent of normal, according to Doug Johnson, spokesman for the Bonneville Power Administration. The region also added 600 megawatts of wind power since last year and approximately 900 megawatts of power from the region’s only nuclear plant, Columbia Generating Station, has also returned to the grid. The plant was offline for refueling during last year’s oversupply.

A dry year and market conditions in California — where a 900-megawatt power plant is offline — is creating some hope that shut downs will be avoided. Should the conditions persist, power generated in the northwest could find a needy market to the south.

Last year, however, similar conditions led to the curtailment of 97,557 megawatt hours of wind power by the BPA, a decision that was met with a series of legal actions by wind power generators and their supporters.

Salmon advocates have been drawn into the fray because BPA limits spill of water over dams, which would make room for power generation from other sources, because doing so can cause harm to salmon. Falling water produces bubbles that dissolve as gas. Dissolved gasses can harm salmon or kill them during migration.

Now new information may show that more spill increases salmon’s chance, not only of surviving migration, but also of surviving in the ocean, according to Pat Ford, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition. He said this year the Comparative Survival Study — a long-term study of salmon health stewarded by state and federal fish agencies and tribes — found fish spilled over dams instead of barged around them in trucks or passed through turbines were more likely to survive.

“It not only increases their survival during the migration, it also provides a fitness quotient or something like that that enables them to survive better in the ocean,” he said, adding ocean mortality has always been high for salmon, and that until now, it was believed that humans could do little to change that.

Ford said the finding would mean that increasing spill beyond the current court-ordered levels could move salmon to a “survival standard” under the Endangered Species Act, meaning the species would no longer be in decline. He added that oversupply makes it possible to experiment with greater spill levels without affecting the availability of power.



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