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Power Council Adjourns Early to Rewrite Mainstem Amendments

by Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter, March 21, 2003

Northwest Power Planning Council staffers found themselves waiting hours for a plane out of Montana last week after the council ended their monthly meeting early because the group wasn't ready to finalize its mainstem amendments to the region's fish and wildlife program.

Instead, members went into caucus to discuss their next move, deciding to form an editorial committee that will hash out major areas of agreement and disagreement and start development of a revised document which could debut at a special council meeting on March 27.

As for the "preferred alternative" for mainstem amendments the council voted on last fall, "a good amount of it" will probably be included in the new draft, said Montana member John Hines, who will represent his state on the four-person editorial committee.

The preferred alternative calls for steadier water releases from federal reservoirs than current operations allow, dumping the mainstem flow targets mandated by the hydro BiOp, and allowing for more flexibility in hydro operations by ending the April 10 flood control and June refill requirements. Taken together, the changes would slightly reduce flow augmentation in the spring and add more water in the Snake in late summer.

Hines said he expected to discuss spill strategies as well. Montana had earlier proposed cutting spill at federal dams by nearly half-a proposal that would have become part of the council's preferred alternative but for a last-minute voting snafu at its Spokane meeting last October. The council has spent much of its time over the past five months discussing the pros and cons of flow augmentation, listening to scientists from state and federal agencies and reviewing their varying perspectives on whether boosting flows can aid fish survival in the mainstem rivers.

Both Montana and Idaho members strongly supported the council's preferred alternative, while Washington members and then-council member John Brogoitti from eastern Oregon, also voted for it. The only negative vote came from Oregon's Erich Bloch, who left the council Jan. 1. His replacement, Milton-Freewater lawyer and viticulturist Melinda Eden, may pick up where Bloch left off, supporting more flow and spill throughout the system.

Brogoitti was replaced in December by Gene Derfler after being fired late last year by then-Gov. John Kitzhaber. Derfler is a long-time state politician who recently retired as head of the Oregon state Senate.

A westsider, Derfler is considered something of a maverick and has strongly supported state agricultural interests in the past. His recent comments indicate that he may not support Oregon fish and wildlife proposals for more flow and spill at the federal dams, a position that could put him at odds with his own state agencies, as Brogoitti had been.

Fish managers from Washington, Oregon and regional tribes have opposed any changes to mainstem operations that would reduce BiOp mandates.

By March 7, member states were supposed to share proposed revisions to the mainstem amendments, incorporating comments from regional stakeholders, but some council members didn't get revisions until the following Monday--leaving the council with little time to digest the new proposals.

Washington's Karier wasn't keen to share his state's revisions. "They change by the day," he told NW Fishletter after the council's meeting in Whitefish, Montana last week. But Karier still voiced basic support for the Montana-Idaho position.

"I'd like to see the council balance the different and important interests," Karier said. He noted that the NMFS hydro BiOp, which governs operations to aid ESA-listed salmon and steelhead, doesn't take into account the upriver biops that have been written for ESA-listed sturgeon and bull trout by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

And then there are the major financial problems in the energy industry today, Karier added. He said the council has a broader mandate than federal agencies and it should try to reconcile the differences between the biops.

"There are ways to get steadier outflows to help upriver resident fish populations without disturbing flows downriver," said Karier, "but it's complicated,"

Karier said all hydro operations should be looked at from the power perspective, especially the most costly facility, which is spilling water for fish passage instead of using it for generation. Testing fish survival benefits from different levels of spill could help to fine-tune dam operations, Karier said, which could relieve some of BPA's financial burden without compromising fish needs.

The Washington contingent reportedly was struggling with its proposal for future operations at Grand Coulee dam, an element which became part of the council's preferred alternative. Originally submitted by upriver tribes, it calls for maintaining a steady reservoir elevation (1,283 feet) from September through December, a strategy that may improve food productivity for resident fish in Lake Roosevelt, although there is little evidence for it at present.

Power users have said such operations at Grand Coulee would interfere with fall and winter flows for ESA-listed chum in the lower Columbia and reduce effectiveness of Grand Coulee's generating flexibility. Mid-Columbia public utilities have said maintaining a steady elevation at Coulee would adversely affect the ability of downriver dams to meet regional loads and make it more difficult to keep the entire Western power grid in balance.

Oregon brought a new set of river operations in its latest proposed revisions, reportedly even more draconian than in its earlier proposals, which called for adding 2 million acre-feet in flows from Canadian and upper Snake storage to current BiOp levels, and spilling more at dams, which could add another $47 million annually to BPA's fish costs. The earlier Oregon proposals did not make it into the council's preferred alternative.

Now, Oregon is calling for dam modifications to reduce potentially harmful effects of spill--such changes could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, with no guarantee that Clean Water Act mandates could be met at all times.

Council Chair Judi Danielson was philosophical about the situation. She said by the end of this week, the council's committee will be well on its way to drafting a group of mainstem amendments that should be acceptable to all states. She thought they were already fairly close and getting Washington to resolve its position over the Grand Coulee issue was probably the biggest hurdle for them to overcome. "It will be interesting to see what they come up with," Danielson said. -Bill Rudolph

Bill Rudolph
Power Council Adjourns Early to Rewrite Mainstem Amendments
NW Fishletter, March 21, 2003

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