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Montana Council Members Want Action on Mainstem Plan

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - June 20, 2003

Frustrated thus far by federal Columbia River Basin hydrosystem operators' response, Montana's Northwest Power Planning Council members said this week they plan to submit a formal request that Libby and Hungry Horse dams be operated as stated in the Council's newly revised "Mainstem Plan."

The Council's Mainstem Plan is part of the Council's fish and wildlife program and signals the panel's desires about how the federal hydrosystem should be operated. It is intended as a guide by the federal operators such as the Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation, and the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets power generated by the dams.

The Council plan, which was amended in April, conforms in most respects to the 2000 biological opinions issued by NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Those BiOps described operations such as spill and flow augmentation that are intended to improve the survival of salmon, steelhead and resident fish that are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

But the Council plan calls for some changes and tests of those ESA regimes.

After recent meetings with federal executives from the Bonneville Power Administration, Bureau of Reclamation, Army Corps of Engineers, NOAA, and the USFWS, Montana Councilors Ed Bartlett and John Hines this week voiced their concern regarding the lack of implementation of the Council plan.

The Council's Mainstem Plan calls for more stable operations at Libby and Hungry Horse dams by minimizing fluctuations in flows that stem from the facilities. The plan also calls for keeping Libby and Hungry Horse reservoirs higher during the summer.

The NOAA Fisheries BiOp mandates water releases from the Hungry Horse and Libby storage reservoirs in northwest Montana in July and August in large part to boost flows in the lower Columbia River to help ESA-listed juvenile salmon and steelhead migrate to the ocean. The Council's amended mainstem plan asks for an experiment to release a smaller volume of water over a longer period of time -- July through September -- on the grounds that a longer, steadier release affords greater protection to upriver fish and wildlife in the rivers and reservoirs than the more rapid flow fluctuations called for under the BiOp. The theory is that the lesser release would have little or no affect on salmon and steelhead downstream.

The Council amendments also call for drafting limits of 10 feet at Libby and Hungry Horse reservoirs. Currently the reservoirs can be drafted down 20 feet from full pool.

Also important to Montana is that the Mainstem Plan calls for immediate implementation of spill tests at federal dams in the region to find the most effective spill levels for fish and the power system. Spill is water that could be used for power generation that is spilled over dams to help migrating salmon to the ocean.

To date the federal agencies involved have not committed to implementing the Council's plan. During this week's Technical Management Team meeting, state and federal salmon managers and federal hydrosystem operators told Montana's representative that they did not anticipate deviating from the status quo operations at Hungry Horse and Libby this summer, according to Montana's Council office. The inter-agency technical group is responsible for making recommendations on dam and reservoir operations.

(For more on this week's TMT meeting, see CBB Stories No. 5 and 6)

"There is resistance to doing anything now," Bartlett said.

"I am concerned that the federal agencies, because of inaction now, may be precluding the region from obtaining significant ratepayer and fish and wildlife benefits in the future," Montana Councilor John Hines said. "It amazes me that the fish managers in the lower Columbia region continue to ignore the biological needs of Montana reservoirs and rivers. The Council reviewed these issues, and the four Northwest states unanimously decided that the Mainstem Plan was the way to go."

The Council is directed by the Northwest Power Act of 1980 to prepare a program to protect, mitigate and enhance fish and wildlife of the Columbia River Basin affected by hydropower dams while also assuring the region an adequate, efficient, economical and reliable power supply.

The Mainstem Plan passed in April of this year by a unanimous vote from all four of the Council's member states - Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. Recently the governors met and released a document that urges the federal action agencies to fully implement the Council's Fish and Wildlife Program including the Mainstem Plan.

"We need to move the Council's Mainstem Plan forward," Bartlett said. "Fish, wildlife, and the economy in Montana have been adversely affected by the current operations of the hydrosystem, and if this plan is implemented, we would reduce some of those impacts and also improving the efficiency of the hydropower system."

"It is frustrating that the federal agencies are not moving more quickly toward implementing the Council's Mainstem Plan," Hines said. "I understand that the entire plan cannot be implemented immediately, but there are some practical operations that can be undertaken this summer that would benefit Montana's fish and wildlife and provide tens of millions of savings to BPA ratepayers." With power prices currently at relatively high levels, Hines said that it is estimated that the cost of planned summer spill could be as much as $110 million.

Bartlett said Montana would like to see test of lesser spill levels launched at least a few of the hydrosystem's projects this August to see if the biological benefits to migrating salmon are preserved and at the same time make more water available for power generation. The risk at that time would be minimal because the majority of the outbound juveniles will have passed and most of those remaining would be transported, he said.

NOAA Fisheries regional hydro chief, Jim Ruff, said the federal agencies have, even before the Mainstem Plan amendments were adopted, been trying to address Montana's concerns. And the agencies plan continued discussions with the Council and states at both the executive and technical level.

"We've met with the Council and with the Council staff on this several times," Ruff said.

The agencies do have ongoing research in place at both Ice Harbor Dam on the Lower Snake and the Columbia's John Day Dam to determine the most effective levels of summer spill. Like all of the mainstem research projects, the tests were channeled through the BiOp's Regional Forum process. The planning for the 2004 research program is now beginning and the Council is encouraged to channel its research requests through the forum's technical committees, Ruff said. The Forum's System Configuration Team sets project priorities for a limited amount of available funding through the Columbia River Fish Mitigation Program.

"We're asking them to weigh in," he said of the Council and staff.

Ruff said it is "a little unrealistic" to expect research projects to be designed, reviewed, approved and implemented in a matter of a few months. And tasks such as finding and tagging juvenile fish that are to be used various tests take time and money.

Still, Bartlett says he and Hines feel that summer spill tests should be launched on a few more projects in that limited August time frame.

"We don't think that 2003 should be lost," Bartlett said of the opportunity to gather data. "Eventually we want to see spill tests at all facilities."

The federal agencies have also been trying to address flow and reservoir issues.

"We have done our best to reduce the double peak" flows by drafting at a more constant rate, Ruff said. Grand Coulee Dam downriver holds the water and now serves as more of the trigger point when augmentation flows are needed to buoy salmon outmigrations.

Reservoirs have been maintained at higher levels in large part due to storage exchanges with Canadian reservoirs above Libby Dam. Ruff said that a 20-foot drawdown at Libby represents 890,000 acre feet of water. But operations have not required that maximum drawdown from full pool in any year that the reservoir filled to within four feet of full. In two low water years since the 1995 BiOp established the limit, no augmentation water was taken.

Both Hines and Bartlett expressed hope that certain aspects of the Council plan can still be implemented this summer and stated they will continue to press the federal agencies to implement the plan for the benefit of Montana and the region.

Barry Espenson
Montana Council Members Want Action on Mainstem Plan
Columbia Basin Bulletin, June 20, 2003

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