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OI Conversations: Jason Sweet, Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) fisheries biologist

Jason Sweet

The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) is in charge of the power that is generated from the eight federal dams on the Columbia River and Lower Snake River in Washington. The BPA spends approximately 240 million dollars a year on various salmon projects in the Northwest.

Aaron Kunz spoke to BPA fisheries biologist Jason Sweet in April 2012 following a tour of Bonneville Dam near Portland, Oregon.

Aaron Kunz: Describe the kind of work that the Bonneville Power Administration is doing in regard to salmon.
Jason Sweet: We've got a real broad program for anadromous fish. The dam passage is part of it. We also work on habitat restoration, we work on hatchery programs, we work on predator management, avian predators and fish like northern pike minnow. All of that kind of fits into our - we call it the "all H" approach, so it is a bunch of different aspects that kind of fit into an overall salmon recovery program. (Sweet is referring to the four H's of salmon recovery: Harvest, Habitat, Hatchery, Hydroelectric.)

Kunz: BPA is the funding arm for many of the projects being done by NW Tribes and Idaho Fish and game, correct?
Sweet: Yes. It is about $240 Million dollars a year, $239 for 2012.

Kunz: Describe the scope of the anadromous fish program here in the Columbia River Basin.
Sweet: It is a big collaboration. We all kind of feed off each other and help each other out and I think it is a pretty good program compared to others around the country. The everglades restoration program down in Florida is about the only one that comes to mind on the same scale so we've got just a huge program, a lot of different players involved.

It's a challenge, there's no doubt about it but it is one of the fun parts too is working together with people to solve a problem that is not all that easy to fix.

Kunz: If the US Army Corp. of Engineers is responsible for the management of the dams. What role does the BPA play?
Sweet: We're responsible for marketing the power that is generated at the federal hydro system so that includes more than just the dams. That is also the nuclear power generation facility in the Tri-Cities, we market power generated by the wind farms in the gorge so it is broader than just the hydropower system but because we are involved with the dams and mitigating for the effects of the dams a lot of our revenue goes back towards salmon recovery.

We work with the Corp of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation as our partners as the federal action agencies and then with NOAA fisheries in the US Fish and Wildlife Service as some of our federal regulators. So a lot of different federal agencies working on the issue and Bonneville's funding provides a lot of especially the habitat and the hatchery program components but we also fund a large part of the hydro-passage revenue or budget as well.

Kunz: What percentage of the power BPA provides is hydropower?
Sweet: Our BPA market is about 30 percent of the power in the region, and of that 30 percent, about 80 percent comes from hydropower, 10 percent comes from nuclear, and the remaining 10 percent is coal, natural gas and wind generation.

Kunz: How does hydro impact the prices of electricity in the Northwest?
Sweet: That's one of the benefits of the power system - is the lower rates that generate from using the energy in the river.

These dams are sources of clean power for the northwest. They don't generate green house gases so they are a reliable source of power that helps also back up the wind generation. Without the dams it would be harder to have as much green wind energy as we do in the region right now. So they definitely have a role in the northwest power.

Kunz: Talk about the role BPA has taken when it comes to fish habitat restoration.
Sweet: Fish habitat restoration is a big component. There has been a lot of change in the environment over the past hundreds of years, so our program comes back in and identifies areas that could benefit from habitat restoration, whether it is planting trees in the riparian zones along the streams (a riparian zone is the interface between land and the rivers and streams), adding large wood back into the streams, increasing channel complexity. In a lot of cases streams will have had dikes or levies built along side of them and straightened out the channels. We'll come back in and put the bends back in the river per se. Just trying to give the fish, when they do get back up to their spawning grounds, a safe place and a healthy river to rear in, to spawn in.

Kunz: If BPA is the funding arm, describe your relationship between the agencies and organizations that do the work?
Sweet: We generally rely on local experts to bring us habitat actions in their areas. So these are local biologists - they know the streams, they've walked many miles if not all the miles of the stream so these are the folks that know the region and know the issues that need to be solved. So we'll come in and work with these local groups. Then we'll go ahead and make funding decisions based on those discussions.

Kunz: What is the biggest problem salmon face, based on your discussions with local biologists?
Sweet: Similar to the dams, each population has unique issues that we need to address. Some populations have legacy impacts from mining, other populations are in urban areas or have a lot of development in their spawning areas. Some populations are spawning in wilderness areas and just need a way to get back up to those places so it varies from population to population.

Kunz: In the view of BPA, why do salmon matter to the Northwest?
Sweet: They are an icon of the northwest. It is why a lot of us enjoy living around here. It's just part of our culture so it is something we value as well. You can't get around it. You see them everywhere you go. It is a real part of a lot of our lives. It is economic, it's cultural, it's just something you see everywhere you go around the northwest. You see salmon depicted in art, you see it in a lot of different aspects of our lives here.

Kunz: What would happen if the salmon were to suddenly disappear?
Sweet: I think it would be a great loss - something we don't want to happen at all. You asked the question on funding and we spend a lot of money on this program every year and it's something that is very important to us. We take it very seriously. It's a responsibility that we have as the federal agencies around the dams and the Columbia River - and personally speaking for myself, I enjoy working on it. It has been a great experience working on these issues and trying to solve these problems.

Kunz: How do you gauge success?
Sweet: You can measure it in a lot of different ways. We are held to standards by law to meet the endangered species act. We're striving to meet performer standards at the dams to get 96 percent of the fish through the dams in the spring and 93 percent in the summer. So we have a lot of different yard sticks that we measure toward success. And at the end of the day if we can prevent any further decline I guess and make sure that we are on a track to success we'll be in a good spot.

(Note: A portion of the juvenile and adult salmon dies at each of the dams. A lot of work has been done to reduce that fish mortality rate, including fish ladders, bypass spillways, grates that prevent salmon from being sucked into the giant turbines and radio receivers to monitor fish passage through the hydro system.)