Landmark deal between BPA, states and tribes could mean better salmon survival rates

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Federal, state and tribal groups have agreed to a landmark deal allowing for flexible water spillover on Columbia River and Snake River dams, a compromise partners hope will save salmon and manage costs.

The deal calls for increased spillover at dams for certain times of the day and year. The agreement covers the eight lower Columbia and Snake River dams and lasts for three years.

Spillover can increase chances of young salmon survival. But it lessens the amount of water running through turbines, limiting the amount of power the dams produce.

The agreement is between Oregon, Washington, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation.

The Columbia and Snake rivers are home to 13 species of fish listed under the Endangered Species Act. The rivers have been a focal point of increasing Chinook salmon runs, which are the primary food source for the endangered southern resident orca.

For years the BPA has resisted increased spillover, arguing it impacts their bottom line. The agreement allows for the BPA to have a say in when spill occurs, like the spring when water flows are already high.

The flexibility will hopefully mitigate higher rates for consumers and keep the cost of spill programs to what they were in 2018, BPA officials said.

The agreement allows for water spill for the 16 hours a day when the power loads are light. Spill will decrease during the morning and evening when power consumption is at its peak.

Ongoing lawsuits between the BPA and other parties will be put on hold for the length of the deal. The pause in litigation is a welcome sight for the BPA, who has been engaged in legal battle over spills and the lower Snake River dams for decades.

"It allows us to take a 'timeout' from litigation," said Elliot Mainzer, the Administrator of BPA. "It gives us some breathing room to focus and continue to collaborate rather than litigate."

A face-to-face agreement is welcomed by all parties, Mainzer said. Especially welcomed because the groups are typically at odds.

"It's a real breakthrough," Mainzer said.

Representative Dan Newhouse and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers criticized the deal, saying it would cost ratepayers and extra $38 million in 2019 and was "worse than useless."

In 2018, a judge ordered more spillover at the dams in response to a suit filed by Oregon and the Nez Perce Tribes.

The amount of water going over the dams to maximize salmon fry survival is a complex issue. Too little and salmon don't get over the dam or don't survive the fall. Too much creates other problems such as whirlpools and fish dropping too deep.

NOAA Fisheries said they will closely watch the spills in order to determine where it's hurting and where it's helping the small fish.

"Spill can be an important tool in promoting safe juvenile passage through dams," NOAA said in a statement. "However, spill must be carefully crafted to address specific dam features and flow conditions in order to reduce the potential harm posted by increased spill."

The deal lasts until 2021.