BPA Gets Little Support from Salmon Managers
by Bill Rudolph
The Bonneville Power Administration found regional fish and wildlife managers generally unsupportive and suspicious of the agency's new summer spill analysis after explaining its new proposals at two meetings this week.
It was the same basic message BPA delivered via Powerpoint two weeks ago at the January meeting of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, along with the same presentation of potential "offsets," strategies to make up for juvenile fish numbers lost from any reduced spill at federal dams.
But Columbia Basin salmon managers had plenty of technical questions regarding the passage model used to estimate juvenile survival from different spill scenarios, along with the extra step that BPA staffers took to peg adult-equivalents. The analysis found that the healthy fall chinook run from the Hanford Reach, which makes up about 70 percent of the summer migration, would take about a 5 percent hit from a no-spill option in July and August, cutting returns from 205,000 fish to 195,000.
Since most ESA-listed fall chinook from the Snake are barged, a no-spill option was expected to reduce their numbers by only two dozen fish (This part of the analysis used an extremely generous smolt-to-adult return rate of 2 percent, but results were estimated with SARs that ranged from .5 percent to 4 percent).
The difference in juvenile survival for the Snake fish between a no-spill option in July and August and full spill was estimated at only .13 percent (from 12.69 percent to 12.82 percent), with the full-spill option expected to cost BPA $77 million to make up for lost generation.
So how did such an expensive strategy find its way into the BiOp? Ex-BPA Administrator Randy Hardy told NW Fishletter that he was running the agency when the 1995 BiOp was completed.
"My strong impression was that summer spill was only marginally related to saving Snake River fish and had much more to do with improving harvest opportunities on Hanford Reach fish," Hardy said. "It seems that recent analyses by Bruce Suzumoto of the Power Council and BPA bear out that observation."
BPA's Suzanne Cooper and Kim Fodrea fielded questions about the efficacy of the model at a Feb. 4 meeting of the Technical Management Team.
"It may not be perfect, but it's the best we have," Cooper told the technical management team at their Feb. 4 meeting in Portland, noting it's an updated version of the SIMPAS juvenile survival model used by NMFS in the 2000 BiOp.
The salmon managers also had questions about how the offsets were calculated for estimating the benefits from increasing the pikeminnow predation bounty program and reducing stranding of Hanford Reach juveniles. The BPA analysis estimated that enough more pikeminnow could be killed to eventually add another 7,000 to 56,000 returning adults fall Columbia chinook runs. Reducing stranding could add another 50,000 adults or even more, the analysis suggested.
NOAA Fisheries' spokesman John Palensky said the agency had not yet judged the offset analysis and hoped the co-managers would send in comments by Feb. 13. He said a decision on the spill evaluation by federal agencies was likely to occur in March. Most river watchers say it's likely agency heads will support the evaluation of an option that calls for ending spill in August, a strategy that could save BPA over $40 million a year.
Oregon Fish and Wildlife biologist Ron Boyce expressed concern that the evaluation was likely to go ahead whether or not an offset program was in place. BPA had earlier said it was willing to pay for more tags to test a spill scenario at Bonneville Dam with more fish to satisfy criticism of the original proposal.
The next day, mid-level policy managers from other federal agencies, states and tribes took a few more potshots at BPA's proposal when the BiOp's Implementation Team met in Portland.
Some, like Howard Schaller of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, questioned the numbers used in the SIMPAS analysis. He said the analysis needed to include the range of probabilities in the results to reflect variabilities in inputs, such as estimates of migrating smolts from different stocks.
But BPA's Kim Fodrea said her agency felt that the range of results calculated under different return rates had captured the variability in the analysis. Still, Schaller wasn't satisfied.
Fish Passage Center head Michele DeHart took issue with BPA's evaluation of potential savings from the different reduced spill options, saying that the analysis looked like the agency was maximizing revenue impacts while minimizing fish impacts. But BPA staffers said the pricing model used recent average summer prices across the last 50 water years, and computing the savings another way wasn't likely to make much of a difference.
Offsets Way Off?
Critics at the IT meeting also wanted more information from BPA to see how the agency estimated its benefits to fish from different offsets, especially those dealing with reducing predation and river fluctuations in the Hanford Reach.
When asked why BPA didn't start these offset programs sooner if they were so beneficial, Cooper said resources are limited. "We have to make choices on what we prioritize to do."
She said she understood there is a lot of uncertainty about the biological impacts of the summer spill options and the assessment of offset benefits, "but there are some policymakers in the region who are saying, 'So we've got a very expensive operation,' and when they are asking, 'What are the benefits of this operation?' they are hearing we have no data to tell you what the benefits of the operation are.
"So, they are asking, 'Well, maybe we could look at some alternative measures that are less costly and be able to implement those, and provide similar benefits." Cooper asked for feedback and promised more information for skeptics.
Corps of Engineers' spokesman Jim Athearn said policy discussions about potential offsets are already taking place at higher policy levels, namely, the "Three Sovereigns" level of federal, state and tribal governments. He asked for quick input to get offsets in place as soon as possible.
But some tribes already served notice that they won't support any changes to cut spill. "We are appalled by the continuing efforts of the Bonneville Power Administration, the Corps of Engineers and NOAA Fisheries to eliminate or reduce summer spill," said a Feb. 4 letter from the Nez Perce Tribe's executive committee to federal agencies. The committee said the proposals represented a direct infringement on tribal treaty fishing rights, a sentiment echoed by another letter from the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission to the Implementation Team itself.
However, NOAA Fisheries spokesman John Palensky said any potential offset that dealt with a harvest buyout would only be directed at the non-Indian sector and not affect tribal fishermen.
Curiously, Washington state's representative failed to appear at the IT meeting, leading to speculation that the state may have begun to distance itself from critics of the summer spill proposal.
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs