Spilling water over the dams -- rather than forcing it through turbines and complex bypass systems -- is critical to aid endangered migrating salmon and steelhead because it is the safest and best way for baby salmon to get to sea. Extensive scientific studies show that fish do much better riding over the tops of the dams -- as they once did over the free-flowing Columbia's waterfalls -- than they do going through the deadly turbines.
"We are filing this petition to the Washington Department of Ecology to give salmon more of what they need to survive," said Glen Spain, Northwest Regional Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations (PCFFA), a trade organization for West Coast commercial fishing families. "Allowing more water (and fish) to flow over the dams and not go through the turbines will simply help these fish survive, as well as the coastal and inland communities who depend on them for their livelihoods."
Even in low water conditions, spilling water over the dams has helped produce some of the best returns of salmon and steelhead seen in many years. The returning salmon have given a shot in the arm to sport and commercial fisheries in the Columbia River at a time when the rest of the West Coast salmon fishing picture has been a disaster.
"This petition needs to be granted -- and fast -- to help our Northwest salmon economy recover and become strong again," said Liz Hamilton, Executive Director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. "Spill is a proven, effective action that will help to ensure that there will always be sustainable salmon runs for the people and communities that depend on them."
If granted, the petition would allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to spill water in greater volume that is permitted under Washington's current restrictions. Increasing the amount of water spilled over the dams increases salmon survival by allowing more fish to avoid the dam's lethal turbines.
Specifically, the petition seeks modification of Washington's Total Dissolved Gas (TDG) standards. Currently, these standards allow a TDG level of 120 percent in the area immediately below a dam's spillway (the tailrace), but restrict it to 115 percent in the area just above the next dam downstream (the forebay). The petition asks Washington to remove the 115 percent forebay TDG limit or increase it to 120 percent.
The current limit is artificially capping what regional fish managers have said is needed for increased salmon survival. In 2006, for example, the existing 115 percent limitation reduced spring spill for salmon migration by 4.1 million acre feet, and led to reduced numbers of salmon and steelhead that survived migration through the lower Columbia and Snake River dams, according to the Fish Passage Center.
The State of Oregon recently changed its spill standard to benefit salmon, but Washington has refused to follow suit even though both states considered the issue in a joint process.
"Oregon has done the right thing and changed its standards, said Earthjustice attorney Amanda Goodin. "We hope Washington will follow that lead and adopt the same common-sense, biologically-sound approach to give endangered salmon a better chance of surviving."
Monitoring, conducted over the last two decades, continues to demonstrate considerable benefit to salmon survival -- from increased spill levels -- when TDG levels remain at or below 120 percent. These same studies show virtually no negative impact to other aquatic life.
Despite these demonstrated benefits, the federal government has recently proposed to limit beneficial spill this year during much of the spring salmon migration season. This proposal ignores the available scientific evidence on salmon survival collected over the past few years when increased spring and summer spill have been required by court order.