News from the Front #50:
BPA Kisses Up to Kitz, Wastes 300 Megawatt-Months of Power on Spill
On April 25, 2001, Oregon's Governor Kitzhaber appeared before the Northwest Power Planning Council to demand greater spill at the large hydropower dams on the Lower Columbia River. The Region's dam cans hold the water in reservoirs, release it down the River through turbines, or release it down the River to spill uselessly over the top of the dams. Right now, the Region's reservoirs are precariously low. The Power Planning Council's analysts calculate that there is a one in four chance that the Pacific Northwest will run out of electricity next winter, and they are probably optimistic, unless we have a wet fall.
The technicians who run the dams have been studying the problem for months, and for a while it looked like they might prevail. Indeed, on May 11th, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and other federal agencies issued a revised plan declaring that the "May final volume forecast [for Columbia River runoff] would need to be equal to or greater than 60 MAF [million acre-feet] for spill to be considered in May". They thought that it was vital to keep what little water is available this year in reservoirs, to help keep the lights on next winter.
But engineering principles matter little when political corrrectness is at stake, and nothing is so politically correct as acting "for the salmon". So even though the final May forecast is 56.5 million acre-feet, BPA Administrator Steve Wright proudly told the Council on May 16, 2001 that BPA would spill water in May. Indeed, he stated that BPA would spill water could have generated 300 megawatt-months of electricity.
300 megawatt-months of electricity is a lot of electricity to waste, particularly when businesses all over the Pacific Northwest are closing for lack of economical power. It is probably enough electricity to supply 300,000 homes for a month. BPA estimates that the lost power -- power it could have sold to mitigate upcoming rate increases -- is worth roughly $65 million. And that estimate is based on today's prices of roughly $300 per megawatt hour. Electricity has traded over $1000 per megawatt hour.
BPA is "hopeful" that it might be able to get an equivalent amount of power back later from the Grant County Public Utility District, as if that would excuse squandering it now. But Grant County says that it won't deliver the power unless there is a consensus in favor of the action, including the Tribes, and the head of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission told The Oregonian: "We have not and do not support the swap."
BPA, like most modern government agencies, maintains a staff of professional public relations experts at taxpayer expense to mislead and confuse the public. BPA's public relations experts prepared "talking points" for hapless BPA employees to respond to public inquiries on the program. If the public asks "How many fish will be saved by providing this spill? What's it worth per fish?", BPA's response is: "BPA doesn't make that kind of estimate. The point is saving endangered species."
For BPA to refuse to calculate how many fish might benefit from a $65 million program would be unpardonably stupid, though business as usual in salmon recovery. In fact, the "talking points" lie. The very same day BPA issued the talking points, it also made a filing at FERC that contained an estimate of how many fish might be saved.
The estimate is bogus, being based upon a simple spreadsheet model of salmon survival, called SIMPAS, which the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) invented for the very purpose of lying about the benefits of spill. As I have noted elsewhere, at greater length, BPA had funded a reasonably competent computer model of salmon survival, CRiSP, which predicted survival decreases from massive spill programs that began in 1994. So NMFS put together a model that didn't include the negative effects of spill, and presto, spill was good for salmon.
It is difficult to say what benefits, if any, might come from higher spill. The fishery agencies have for a decade resisted making competent measurements of salmon survival at the Lower Columbia Dams, because the results at dams further up the River show no benefits from nearly every expensive and stupid program they demand. For example, an article recently published in the North American Journal of Fisheries Management graphs data of survival vs. spill at Little Goose Dam on the Snake River:
As you can see from the graph, survival is the same all the way down to zero spill. As best we can measure, spill doesn't benefit fish at all at this dam. At The Dalles Dam, higher spill levels have actually show evidence of killing more fish..
This may seem counterintuitive, in that turbine blades seem more deadly than falling over the top of a dam, but turbine blades actually strike very few fish, and bypass systems tend to keep most fish away from the turbines anyway. The Dalles Dam, where BPA proposes to spill roughly 30% of the River flow, is an outstandingly dumb place to spill lots of water because the turbine entrances are perpendicular to the main river flow, so that very few of the salmon go into the turbines anyway. But these little details don't matter when "it's now or never to help the fish", according to the "talking points".
In any event, BPA's testimony before FERC claims that anywhere from 120 to 1200 additional endangered fish might return as a result of its program. (BPA also estimates that 763 to 8,766 hatchery salmon might come back.) Even if those numbers were not gross exaggerations -- and they are -- this equates to anywhere from $50,000 to $500,000 per endangered fish. These are the very same fish that you can buy off the back of pickup trucks along the Columbia River for $3.00 a pound. Thousands of the fish rotted this spring when a glut lowered prices further and it wasn't even worthwhile to take the fish to market.
So the bottom line is that we are probably spending $500,000 a fish to make fish that are so plentiful that we gillnet them and let them rot, by wasting enough power to run a small city, in a context where power outages kill people. Stan Grace represents Montana on the the Power Planning Council, and may be the last person left on the Council who cares more about reality than politics. When he heard Steve Wright's plan, he asked how many fish it was worth to kill someone in a traffic accident by cutting off power to traffic lights. No one could answer him, because they can't or won't say what they must really believe at some level: that fish are just more important than people.
© James Buchal, May 17, 2001
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