Feds Keep on Spilling,
by Bill Rudolph
Federal agency execs finally pulled the plug on the Bonneville Power Administration's last-ditch effort to end summer spill early at four federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. Though juvenile fish numbers were down to three digits at some dams, the expensive effort to help young salmon move past the dams continued through Aug. 31, costing ratepayers about $1 million a day.
A few days after the Aug. 22 decision, BPA, NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a joint statement saying that spill would continue. But the agency heads also said they believe changes must be implemented before next summer to more clearly allow alternative measures that could accomplish the biological benefits associated with spill at a reduced cost.
The statement cited an analysis by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council that concluded spilling water in August increases by only five fish the number of Snake River fall chinook listed under the Endangered Species Act, while adding about 2,400 more adults to the Hanford fall run.
But the agencies said that without regional consensus and after considerable review, "there was an inadequate basis to cease spill this year other than [on] the Aug. 31 planning date." However, "the agency heads said they believe changes must be implemented before next summer to more clearly allow alternative measures that could accomplish the biological benefit associated with spill at reduced cost."
Some utility groups were hoping for something better. "If the Biological Opinion cannot be interpreted and implemented to reflect common sense, then it must be improved," said Scott Corwin, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Generating Cooperative. "The only bright side to spilling away one million dollars of generation per day without biological benefit is that it created a very clear record for drastic change."
The decision was originally scheduled to be made Aug. 25., but it came early after several agency heads found themselves at Ice Harbor Dam Aug. 22, where President Bush delivered a speech that promised dams and healthy salmon runs could co-exist.
"The timing of the president's visit couldn't have been worse," said one observer of the process, who did not wish to be named. He said if agencies had announced an end to the spill strategy just as Bush was telling the world how much his administration was committed to salmon recovery, the president's message could have been discounted.
But Greg Delwiche, BPA's VP for generation supply, said that the timing of Bush's speech was not really an issue. He pointed out that BPA's Scott Bettin made the agency's most recent effort to raise the spill issue during fish and hydro managers' Aug. 20 meeting. That led to the executives' latest decision, he said.
"We went to the mat over this one," Delwiche told NW Fishletter, noting that BPA Administrator Steve Wright felt that spilling so much water for so few fish was poor public policy.
The day President Bush spoke at Ice Harbor, where water spilled for 12 hours for fish passage, only about 300 salmon smolts were passing the dam--a tiny fraction of the 1.3 million. Nobody was counting fish when the execs put their heads together and came up with a final vote of two for spill and one for ending it. The Corps' new Northwestern Division head, Brig. General William Grisoli, and regional NOAA Fisheries Administrator Bob Lohn both voted to maintain status quota spill operations. The Corps was not willing to support an early end unless NOAA signed off on it.
Lohn had earlier expressed doubts about the questionable biological value of spill versus its expense, but he said federal attorneys cautioned against changing any operations mandated by the BiOp while that document was in remand. He also told other federal execs at their Aug. 5 meeting in Portland that changing operations "was the judge's decision to make."
At the Aug. 5 meeting, federal agency heads voted down the state of Montana's proposal to evaluate a regimen of reduced flow and spill measures. Though BPA reluctantly went along with other agencies to veto Montana's request, BPA's Wright had left open the possibility of ending spill before the BiOp-mandated cutoff date of Aug. 31, citing computer forecasts that showed about 95 percent of the fall runs had passed most dams.
Arguments between fish and hydro managers over the computer forecasts continued, even though NOAA Fisheries agreed that 95 percent of the ESA-listed fall chinook had passed lower Snake dams by Aug. 20. The BiOp's call for ending spill Aug. 31 is based on data that suggested, on average, 95 percent of the run would be past the dams by then.
Members of the technical forum that oversees weekly hydro operations couldn't agree on any criteria for ending spill early, and states were split evenly on the issue as well, with Washington and Oregon against ending spill early, while Montana and Idaho supported BPA.
With no consensus by the technical folks, the issue was bumped to mid-level policy folks the next day. When no consensus was reached there either, the question was handed off to the federal executives, who essentially punted until next year.
Some parties felt betrayed by the weeks of discussion and analysis ending in such a way. "The lack of action by the federal agency leaders and the council to make changes to the August spill program signifies how corrupt and dishonest that salmon recovery has become," said Darryll Olsen, a water consultant associated with the Columbia-Snake Irrigators Association.
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