Court Orders More Spill Over Dams; BPA Predicts Higher Power Rates

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ordered more water to be spilled over the region's dams to help young salmon migrating to the ocean.

The Bonneville Power Administration said on Tuesday that it will follow the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit decision that orders additional spill operations for the Federal Columbia River Power System, while saying the decision will cost ratepayers millions of dollars in higher utility rates.

In a statement Tuesday, BPA said, “This decision creates a new multi-million dollar obligation for the region’s ratepayers. As we stated in our newly released agency strategic plan, achieving the full scope of BPA’s mission requires a careful balance between sometimes competing objectives. Specifically, we at BPA are committed to delivering on our vast public responsibilities through a commercially successful business. We are analyzing the full financial impacts of this court decision and we will make more information available in the coming weeks.”

As a result of the Ninth Circuit’s decision, more water began spilling over the lower Snake and lower Columbia River dams on Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge Michael Simon in Portland ruled last spring that more water must spill over dams from April to mid-June to help young salmon migrating to the ocean. That ruling was appealed and the appeal was rejected Monday.

The water spilled over the dams cannot be used to produce electricity, thereby increasing the rates of Northwest ratepayers.

Simon ordered a new environmental study for the Columbia and Snake rivers hydropower system and the possibility of breaching, or removing the Snake River dams from Ice Harbor Dam near Burbank upriver to Lower Granite Dam.

Northwest RiverPartners, whose membership includes Umatilla Electric Cooperative and a multitude of Northwest utilities and industry associations, said the plan will do little to help salmon while raising electric rates for the region’s utility customers.

“Estimates project an increase in survival rates of 1 percent for Chinook and 2 percent for steelhead,” the advocacy group said. “That’s less than decimal dust in a complex river system where survival of young salmon migrating downstream varies year-to-year from 35 to 70 percent – due to a range of potential factors unrelated to spill, including water temperatures, spring runoff timing and volumes, fish health, sea lions and other predators. The models show an even smaller impact on adult salmon returns of 1/100th percent.”

The Ninth Circuit’s decision will hit ratepayers hard, said Northwest RiverPartners.

“Spill costs money, and the ones who pay are Northwest families and businesses,” it said. “Spill costs are wrapped into the fish and wildlife costs that make up a major part of every residential or commercial electric bill. More spill will cost more money – an estimated $40 million more per year, according to Bonneville Power Administration – which is poised to implement a “spill surcharge” on the power it sells from the dams to Northwest utilities and their customers.  Regardless of the final total, electric bills will likely go up. This is a massive misuse of people’s hard-earned dollars that will do little to nothing to help endangered salmon.”