BPA continues with plans to trade a viable ecosystem for $$
It's time for a friendly reminder: The Bonneville Power Administration is about to tighten its grip on the waters of the Columbia river at the expense of fish, birds, and the public.
Although the public has been most concerned about salmon, the truth is there are many fish that travel the waters of the Columbia river. And all these fish have been imperiled by the presence of dams, and their associated churning turbines, in these waters. Not only the fish, but the birds, mammals, and fragile riparian ecosystem that depend upon their presence has been jeopardized by the dams.
In generating electricity to feed our insatiable consumption habits, Bonneville and other, smaller power managers have made tremendous profits from the water. However, they have also decimated fish populations and utterly changed both the landscape and the character of the Columbia river basin. Bonneville repeatedly failed to shoulder any responsibility for undoing the damage wrought by the dams. Then, last May, after a long struggle by environmentalists, US District Judge James Redden ruled that the government's plan to protect fish on the Columbia was inadequate. It appeared that the water would once again be required to be shared with the fish.
Since then, however, the BPA has been busily seeking ways to avoid the implementation or continuation of measures that would mitigate damage caused by the presence of the dams in the middle of the Columbian ecosystem. For example, dam operators have been required to open spillways in the summer to provide safe passage to fish rather than shooting them through the churning turbines. Bonneville has fought this requirement tooth and nail, and it looks as if they have finally paid off the right people somewhere.
Ed Mosey, spokesperson for Bonneville said recently that the spillwater is "too expensive," that it's "wasteful," and that there is "no benefit" to allowing the water to run over the dam rather than through the generators. BPA said it would be giving up around $80 million in revenues by allowing the water to flow past without wringing out the available profits first. Even though the Cascadian bioregion needs water in the summertime more than additional electricity, BPA argues that they want to sell the surplus electricity to California at market rates. In a move reminiscent of Enron's claim that deregulation of energy would lead to lower electric bills, BPA has said that selling the surplus to California will reduce rates to NW customers.
It seems the arguments, and likely a lot of cash greasing the right political palms, has paid off. Bonneville may not be required to spill water for the fish this summer after all. In a misguided attempt at preventing an associated plummet in fish populations, it has been suggested that "fish predator control programs" already in place be stepped up. The logic seems to be that the expected deaths of baby salmon in the turbines would be offset by reduced predation on the fish that do manage to survive. State officials seem to be succumbing to this plan.
The trouble is, this plan focuses on the economic importance of salmon, but fails to consider either the role of salmon and other effected fish in the ecosystem, or the impact of such "predator control" mechanisms on the health of the Columbia basin. Animals that have been scrutinized as "fish predators" include sea gulls, sqwafish, pikeminnows, cormorants, herons, osprey, crows, pelicans, bass, and even bald eagles. (Power turbines are conspicuously absent from consideration as fish predators, even though they cause far more disruption in fish populations.)
How are fish predators "controlled" under this program? A messy and bizzare combination of strange contraptions and lethal enforcement are employed by wildlife services. Non-lethal means of controlling predators include wires strung across the river, spotlights shined on night-feeding birds, "non lethal hazing," which involves the use of pyrotechnic devices to frighten birds, and something called an "avian hydrocannon." This last device involves the use of high powered water cannons fired at birds to prevent them from feeding on fish.
Lethal methods are more straightforward. Animals are killed. Birds are shot, non-salmon fish are "harvested." In the years 1997 and 1998, the most recent for which I can find numbers as I write this article, at least 3,143 sea gulls were "lethally controlled" [killed] by wildlife services. Likely, this number is underestimated by thousands, since the report acknowledges that wildlife services officials were not even counting many, if not most, of the birds that they killed. In addition to the direct killings, thousands of eggs are oiled in nesting grounds to prevent them from hatching. In one estimate, 95% of oiled eggs fail to hatch.
This is particularly disturbing in light of the fact that the gull deaths seem to have very little impact on the stated goal of improving salmon yeilds. Several studies concluded that gulls flocked back to the same feeding spots within 15 minutes of a major kill, suggesting that shooting is ineffective at preventing bird predation. More interesting still, yet another study found that in 1997, 75% of birds shot by wildlife services personnel did not contain baby salmon in their digestive systems.
Whether or not killing birds and fish to preserve salmon populations is effective, it is at the very least wrongheaded. The reduction or elimination of spill water is expected to substantially decrease the population of baby fish safely traversing the Columbia river. This decrease will surely stress a delicate ecosystem built around ancient relationships between fish, birds, and other riparian beings. There will be fewer fish for birds to eat, compounded by lethal and non lethal means of keeping the birds away from those few remaining fish. That means there will not only be fewer fish, but fewer birds. And fewer organisms that depend on them. This is a strange exchange: the disruption of the food web for the unnecessary enhancement of the power grid.
In short, substituting the predator control program for the spillwater shifts responsibility for damage caused by the dams onto both the public, who will be asked to pay for these services, and onto an already compromised ecosystem. The plan illogically compounds the ecological nightmare wrought by the mega dams. Yet, as I said, state officials seem to be ready to accept the predator control model. This isn't about saving fish, it's about protecting corporate profits. The waters of the Columbia river, freely provided by nature, are being diverted into private fortunes before they can nourish the ancient cascadian bioregion as they were intended to do.
I relay all this information, not to overwhelm the reader with despair, but to ask you to act. You do have the power to restore the Columbia basin. Reduce your consumption of both water and electricity, and force BPA to relent. The water, after all, is a gift to all of us.
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