the film
Economic and dam related articles

To Spill or Not;
That's Still the Question

by Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter, August 15, 2003

With in-season forecast models churning out less-than- expected estimates of how many fall chinook have passed Columbia and Snake River dams, hydro managers have not yet called for ending spill earlier than the Aug. 31 cut-off date specified in the hydro BiOp.

Two weeks ago, when federal agencies turned down a proposal by Montana to cut spill, BPA head Steve Wright provided critics of current operations a glimmer of hope when he said the agency was still looking at the timing of the fish run to see if the spill program could end a couple of weeks early because most fish had already migrated past the dams. The summer spill program at four dams costs about $1 million a day in lost revenues.

When the computer model shows that 95 percent of the ESA-listed fish have passed the dams, BPA may call for a cessation of summer spill, said Scott Bettin, who represents the power agency at the weekly forum which managers hydro operations. He said that could happen before next Wednesday, when managers meet again to discuss the issue.

The University of Washington passage model, which predicted the run migrating relatively early for weeks now, re-adjusts its estimates as the season progresses, said NOAA Fisheries representative Paul Wagner.

"It appears, if we're not there," said Bettin, "we're really, really close."

At this week's TMT meeting, Bettin said about 94 percent of the ESA-listed Snake run had passed Ice Harbor Dam, where a modified spill program is in place to help less than 500 smolts a day passing the dam by late this week. About 1.4 million smolts were estimated to have migrated through the lower Snake already, with more than 90 percent transferred to barges before they reached Ice Harbor.

Bettin pointed out that the latest survival data from the investigation into spill problems at Ice Harbor shows only a 1 percent potential survival benefit from spill over other passage routes--a combination of dam bypass and turbine routes.

He said that that meant the potential benefit from spill was adding up to six more smolts from the spill effort that day, which cost BPA about $75,000 daily in lost power generation at the dam. Bettin questioned the benefits to fall chinook, since only about one adult returns for every 100 smolts that migrate to sea, and half of the adults are caught, anyway.

But state, federal and tribal managers were not ready to support an end to the spill effort. They were still working on decision criteria for ending spill, and said they should have guidelines ready by early this week.

An Aug. 12 memo from the Fish Pasage Center said run timing was now skewed early by the addition of a large hatchery component to the annual migration. "While the 95 percent passage date for run-at-large is likely past," the memo said, "wild subyearling fish, as measured by run timing prior to supplementation [hatchery fish], reach that point in mid-September."

Meanwhile, a proposal to end spill early that was initiated by Washington state's Power Council members died quickly last week, mired in details of how to split up potential savings between ratepayers and funding more cost-effective fish actions.

Washington memberTom Karier was clearly disappointed. He said that federal agencies were reluctant to offer any specific recommendations for an equitable sharing of benefits from cost savings by reducing spill this year.

"They failed to implement the Council's mainstem program this summer," Karier said. "This was a lost opportunity--the result is less for the fish and ratepayers both."

In the Same Issue of Fishletter
Feds Knocked After Nixing Proposal to Cut Flow and Spill

The summer spill soap opera developed some new twists last week after federal agency executives turned down Montana's request to evaluate reductions to flow and spill operations this year. Though the agencies complained that the current state of the Biological Opinion gave them little flexibility to make changes, they were still reluctant to end the discussion, and left an option open for ending Columbia River spill early. By week's end, even the Northwest Power and Conservation Council was working on a recommendation to end expensive spill operations two weeks before the BiOp mandate of Aug. 31.

"We want to explore the issue of run timing and the court," BPA Administrator Steve Wright said, after representatives of both public and private utilities unloaded a barrage of criticism at the feds for not embracing the Montana proposal, which would likely save electric ratepayers $20 million or more a year by ending spill early. Other federal executives on the firing line included representatives from NOAA Fisheries, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal Bureau of Reclamation, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"The frustrating aspect is that as absurd as summer spill looks to ratepayers, it appears that some of the federal agencies believe they tied their own hands in the BiOp," said Pat Reiten, CEO of PNGC Power. A federal court would "surely" realize the need to alter a wasteful measure that affects only five ESA-listed adult salmon, he said.

A recent analysis by Power Council staff, which Montana used in its presentation to the federal agency officials, concluded that ending all spill in August would reduce the number of returning ESA-listed Snake River fall chinook by five fish.

Most fish listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act--as well as non-listed fish--have already passed through the hydro system this year. Critics say the millions spent on late-August spill for helping salmon past the dams is a waste of money, a point also made in the Montana proposal.

At the Aug. 5 meeting of federal agency execs, Wright expressed disappointment that "some parties" (read: lower Columbia River tribes) didn't seem willing to discuss cost-effective hydro actions.

Wright said he reluctantly agreed with the others to nix Montana's proposal "because this decision, in my view, does not adequately consider the potential for cost-effective alternatives that could meet our responsibilities to fish while having a lesser negative impact on the regional economy."

Wright said summer spill's calculated biological benefits to endangered salmon appeared to be small, "even under the most optimistic assumptions, relative to the costs of summer spill that total in the tens of millions of dollars."

NOAA Fisheries Regional Administrator Bob Lohn agreed with Wright, that benefits for fish appeared to be small for expensive operations like late summer spill. But he cited the opinion of Justice Department attorneys, who cautioned against changing BiOp operations while the document is being revised on a federal judge's order. Lohn said changing operations was "the judge's decision to make."

BPA's Wright also found himself agreeing with Lohn, pointing out that the power agency's attorneys have advised "exercising caution" when adjusting BiOp measures during the federal court remand. "We don't want to lose control of hydro operations," Wright said.

Critics Fault Feds' Decision
But utility representatives were not impressed with the feds' reasons for turning down the Montana proposal. Steve Marshall, who represents Snohomish County PUD, said the proposal should have been presented before the judge who ordered the BiOp remand, rather than speculating whether he had jurisdiction over these potential changes. "There is no good reason why that has not been done."

He also disputed the notion that Montana's proposal did not include a sophisticated testing protocol to measure effects of spill, another reason the executives cited for nixing it. Marshall said the state's proposal to phase in testing was entirely adequate.

"What we really have now is a test of federal executive decision-making for this reason," Marshall said. "This decision-making process, which has gone on for months now, at its conclusion, where it looks like we're about ready to take no action again, is, in effect, a decision," he said. "It's a decision not to save the money, a decision to trade clear economic benefits for minimal fisheries benefits."

John Saven, of Northwest Requirements Utilities, whose members use about 20 percent of the federal system's power for pumping water for irrigation, said ending the entire summer spill program would lead to BPA rate reductions that would save his members $13.5 million per year.

Saven said August spill alone costs BPA about $38 million, on average. "And doing the math, unfortunately, that looks like about $7.6 million for each of the five ESA-listed fish," he said. "It looks like about $15,500 for the non-ESA-listed fish. Those fish are about 15 pounds apiece. That's about $1,000 a pound for fish that are probably going to be harvested at a rate of 50 percent anyway.

"Those are fairly compelling numbers," Saven said. "I propose, if they are correct, for those of you who are in positions of authority--here's an axiom: 'if something's broken, you fix it,' and I think this is broken."

Though his group has intervened on behalf of federal defendants in the BiOp lawsuit, Saven said they will probably file litigation "at some point in time if we lose the confidence that the federal family and states aren't behind us on this issue." He said the economics, though not the only consideration, are compelling in this situation.

Numbers Disputed
Several tribal representatives disputed the Montana analysis findings of puny biological benefits from summer spill. The tribal reps said 16,000 unlisted fall chinook from the Hanford Reach would be lost if spill ended Aug. 15. But the tribal review was admittedly "preliminary and unsophisticated," according to a spread sheet handed out two weeks ago by representatives of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

Andrew Englander from the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition also spoke against Montana's proposal, reading from a letter sent to the federal agencies by American Rivers, the National Wildlife Federation and other environmental groups, along with some fishing organizations. Recent BPA and council analyses "have attempted to distort" the importance of summer spill for both listed and non-listed fish, the letter said.

But it was the comments from utilities that seemed to have the most effect. "They made a coherent argument," said Washington council member Tom Karier, who represented his state at the Aug. 5 meeting. "I didn't have the answers, and the feds didn't have the answers."

Karier and fellow council member Larry Cassidy began work on a full council proposal they hoped would be presented at this week's meeting in Butte, Montana. The proposal would call for ending summer spill this Aug. 15 and placing some of the savings in a fund to support more cost-effective fish actions. These could include predator control, hatchery improvements and water acquisitions, or investigating fish-friendlier turbine operations.

Karier said he was also calling on federal agencies to develop a quick experimental design that could monitor fish survival after spill is stopped.

"Spill is costing $1 million a day now," Karier said. "Funding these other actions would have far more benefits for fish and ratepayers." He said only 1 percent of the ESA-listed fall chinook may still be in the river by now, since most were barged, anyway.

Karier said he and Cassidy were also influenced by Wright's comments, which helped them get started on developing the new council position. "It's an opportunity we shouldn't lose," he said.

Meanwhile, BPA was still working the issue behind the scenes, quietly trying to develop a deal with the tribes to secure their support to end spill Aug. 15. BPA Vice President Greg Delwiche would not confirm that discussions were taking place, but he did say the agency approached the tribes earlier this summer about buying out part of their harvest. "It was a non-starter," Delwiche said.

However, several sources have told NW Fishletter it's likely that BPA may try to pay for a tribal fisheries enforcement program in return for the tribes' assent to an early end to the spill program this year. The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission's $1.3 million enforcement program will not be funded this year under current budget projections for BPA's fish and wildlife program.

Bill Rudolph
To Spill or Not; That's Still the Question
NW Fishletter, August 15, 2003

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation