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NOAA Regional Chief:
BiOp Could Allow Less Spill with Offsets

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - December 12, 2003

Columbia-Snake River federal hydrosystem operations next summer aimed at evaluating the impacts of reduced spill on migrating juvenile salmon would not necessarily go counter to the government's salmon protection strategy if fish losses are "offset" by other measures, according to the regional chief of NOAA Fisheries.

If such a subtract-and-add plan were implemented and had "biological results that are equal or superior" to status quo operations, it would likely fit within the framework of the existing biological opinion that guides hydro operations, NOAA regional administrator Bob Lohn told the Northwest Power and Conservation Council Thursday (Dec. 11).

"My view is that is something that we believe would be consistent with the opinion," Lohn said, particularly if such a proposal enjoys regional support. That belief covers the new BiOp that will emerge in June from a remand process ordered by U.S. District Court Judge James A. Redden.

The Council had asked Lohn to brief them on federal deliberations regarding proposals to alter spill levels in the July-August timeframe from those called for in the Federal Columbia River Power System BiOp issued by NOAA in 2000.

The spill program is among the actions the BiOp's "reasonable and prudent alternative" says must be carried out to avoid jeopardizing the survival of eight of the 12 salmon and steelhead stocks in the Columbia Basin that are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The Council, in April amendments to its fish and wildlife program, asked for hydro and federal, state and tribal fish managers to conduct a "rigorous evaluation of the biological effectiveness and costs of spillway passage and bring that information to bear in a systematic way in decisions on when, and how much to spill. The goal of this evaluation should be to determine if it is possible to achieve the same, or greater, levels of survival and biological benefit to migrating as currently achieved while reducing the amount of water spilled, thus decreased impact on the region's power supply."

The Council amendment set as a goal determining "the most biologically effective spill actions at the lowest cost possible." The Bonneville Power Administration last summer estimated that it was losing $1 million in revenue per day because of the generation, and power sales, foregone because of the amount of water that rush through spill gates instead of hydro turbines.

The Council staff in late summer launched a new process to study the possibilities for implementing an evaluation of reduced spill levels in 2004. The process has drawn the participation of representatives from BPA, the federal agencies that operated the dams and federal, state and tribal fishery managers.

The ad hoc committee created two subcommittees. One has been exploring research and monitoring approaches and the feasibility of implementing those approaches. The other has been investigating potential actions or "offsets" that could be taken to counteract whatever survival loss might result from the spill reduction. Among those at the top of the list are a beefing up of the existing pikeminnow control program, and possibly targeting other species that prey on on young salmon. Buyouts of Alaskan troll fisheries is another option being investigated. Those fisheries net large numbers of Columbia-bound salmon.

Both Lohn and Council staff told the Council this week that work on both fronts was still incomplete. Council Fish and Wildlife director Doug Marker said that ultimately, any decision to proceed with an evaluation would have to be cemented by the third week in January. He said that the Corps of Engineers, which would likely initiate any new study, must order the necessary radio tags for the research by that time.

Lohn said the federal executives -- regional chiefs of the agencies involved -- are looking at the information as it becomes available, and will continue a running dialogue with all of those involved. He said he did not know when a federal decision would be forthcoming. Lohn noted that basin tribes had requested official consultation on the issue.

"We would not reach a final decision until we have had that consultation," Lohn told the Council.

The BiOp calls for varying levels of summertime spill at the three Columbia River dams and Ice Harbor dam on the lower Snake River in southeast Washington. Those four projects do not have the facilities to collect and transport the migrating juvenile fish downriver by barge. During the summer, "maximum" transportation is called for from Lower Granite, Little Goose and Lower Monumental dams on the lower Snake and McNary Dam on the Columbia.

Bruce Suzumoto, NPCC special projects manager, completed statistical survival analysis this past summer aimed at gauging the potential impacts of eliminating summer spill. He used the SIMPASS statistical model developed by NOAA Fisheries and the CRISP model developed at the University of Washington.

Using a smolt-to-adult survival rate of 1 percent, Suzumoto estimated losses there would be 15 fewer Snake River and 6,800 fewer Upper Columbia fall chinook adults returning to the basin if summer spill were ended. The Snake River fall chinook are listed and the Columbia fish are not. The small projected Snake River fall chinook losses are because the vast majority of them are collected and transported via barges to below Bonneville Dam, the lowermost hydro project on the river.

Among the unsettled issues are those of cost -- for equipment, personnel and other needs to carry out the research and for any "offset" actions that might be carried out -- and funding sources.

"My sense is that, if there was a decision to proceed, we're dealing with cost savings and I would expect the savings to be, in part, a source of funding," Lohn told the Council. That is to this point the inkling of the federal executives as far as research costs and offsets for listed species.

That "savings" would be realized by the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets the power generated at the federal projects. Its customer utilities have suggested that any increased earnings from generating instead of spilling should be used to lower wholesale power rates.

The federal executives' topics have included what the potential impacts would be to unlisted stocks, and what might be required to mitigate for those losses.

"We have not discussed what the funding source would be," Lohn said, for actions that might be necessary to offset any reduction of non-listed salmon and steelhead numbers from a reduction in spill.

Washington Council members Tom Karier and Larry Cassidy stressed, at various points during the three-day NPCC meeting, that better assessing of the potential impacts to unlisted species and outlining mitigation for those losses is a crucial ingredient. Among the stocks expected to be hardest hit is the Hanford Reach fall chinook. They pass only one transportation collection site so many must choose spill, turbine or mechanical bypass as their route through John Day, The Dalles and Bonneville dams. Other stocks such as the Deschutes, Hood, Umtatilla, Wind, Klickitat and Yakima also pass one, or no, collection point.

"Until we know what the impacts are in those tributaries, I don't know how we work this out," Cassidy said. The health of those stocks is "key to the survival of salmon in the long term." He noted that tribal analysis shows that the adult return could be reduced by as much as 25,000 annually if spill were stopped.

Lohn said that the federal deliberation "is not just about ESA listed stocks. The fact that they are relatively abundant does not mean we should abuse those runs."

Suzumoto agreed that there had not been enough analysis done that incorporated data about those stocks, but said it could be done.

During his address, Lohn said that NOAA Fisheries had confidence in the estimations of its SIMPASS model, and that that confidence should grow. As a part of the remand process, the model is being updated with data from recent years' survival studies.

Ultimately, the model would be one of the tools to calculate survival changes and the effect on populations.

That would allow the entities involved to judge the "magnitude of the offset that would be needed," Lohn said.

Are there alternative, less costly ways to provide the benefits of spill?

"The general answer is that spill does have biological value. We wouldn't have undertaken it without that benefit. And I certainly don't see a future with no spill, nor do I understand the Council to be saying that.

"The question is, are there, at the margins, places where spill could be reduced and, in effect, used the regional resources that are freed up because of that on these other alternatives that are equally effective," Lohn said.

Barry Espenson
NOAA Regional Chief: BiOp Could Allow Less Spill with Offsets
Columbia Basin Bulletin, December 12, 2003

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