BPA Customers Call for
by Bill Rudolph
A group of public and private utilities have called for an end to BPA's $100-million summer spill program in the Columbia Basin. Citing a recent analysis that estimated only about 15 ESA listed Snake River fall chinook would be lost if the program was canned, ex-BPA administrator Randy Hardy said "We can have it all, both power and fish."
He also called for a major re-write of the BiOp that's now in remand with federal authorities who still haven't decided whether to tweak it to satisfy a federal judge or begin a major overhaul before next June.
At last week's meeting of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, Hardy outlined the utilities' plan that calls for ending summer spill, while operating turbines outside of peak operating efficiency to improve fish survival. Hardy said other programs like the pikeminnow bounty program to cut predation of young salmon could be increased to help offset fish losses from ending the spill program. A new agreement to further reduce stranding of Hanford Reach juveniles could add thousands of returning adults. He also pointed to partial harvest buyouts to satisfy fishermen.
But fishing, tribal and environmental interests were quick to challenge the proposal. At the council meeting, Umatilla tribal trustee Jay Minthorn said 11,000 fall chinook would be lost in 2006 and 2007 if only August spill was eliminated.
"There are no actions proven to offset the impacts of eliminating spill," said Minthorn. "There is no evidence that sufficient mitigation exists for a sacrifice of this magnitude. Simply restoring programs and projects that have been eliminated is a shell game and not worthy of our consideration."
Hardy's proposal was also criticized by Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. Spain didn't acknowledge any potential buyout of a portion of the commercial harvest, but said Hardy's message was "adding insult to injury" to "impoverished fishing communities" and "nearly bankrupt processors" on the West Coast.
"Fleet closures to avoid accidentally catching endangered Columbia salmon now cost coastal communities nearly $500 million each year in lost fishery benefits," he said.
Harvest Buyout A Tough Sell
Hardy made it clear that the utilities didn't support a potential strategy that would pick up the tab for all non-listed salmon losses if summer spill was cut during the time that fall chinook are migrating to sea, including huge numbers of Hanford Reach juveniles, about half of whom are barged from McNary Dam.
"For every thousand chinook you prevent Alaska from catching, you'll get 250 adults back," Hardy said. In 2003, Southeast Alaska trollers, whose harvest is made up of about 16 percent Hanford Reach chinook, averaged a bit over a dollar a pound for their catch. With net catches added, the 400,000 chinook caught this year were worth about $7 million to Southeast fishermen. since most fall stocks are not listed. In fact, between ocean and inriver fisheries they are currently harvested at about a 50 percent rate.
"We're not suggesting total offset of the non-listed impacts simply because those stocks are healthy," Hardy told the Council. He said his representative utilities think the most appropriate balance of BPA's and the Council's responsibility for both fish mitigation and reliable power "would be better served by the kind of program we're suggesting than something that would fully offset the impact to non-listed stocks."
The cost to buy out the Alaska share, about half of the estimated 10,000 less adults that might be produced from a reduced spill regime (harvest is split about 50-50 between ocean and inriver harvest), would cost less than $100,000, figuring ex-vessel values.
Economically, the harvest buyout issue is a no-brainer perhaps. However, since Hardy's Dec. 10 appearance before the Council, it's suddenly erupted into controversy. Some insiders say it's likely a non-starter in the offset discussions.
In a Dec. 12 letter to NOAA Fisheries' regional director Bob Lohn, Alaska Department of Fish and Game commissioner Kevin Duffy said any request to reduce summer spill by cutting harvest exploitation rates appeared "premature."
Duffy said reducing spill was an "apparent inconsistency " with the Pacific Salmon Treaty. He also expressed concern that Alaska might have to shoulder more burden for conserving the stock if summer spill ended in the Columbia Basin.
Duffy was also piqued that his state had not been informed directly of the proposal, which "has made it difficult to present comments, but the general topic is too important to stand silent," he told Lohn, adding that his state could not support the summer spill request at this time, but called for an evaluation of the impacts of reduced spills, including harvest and proposed mitigation.
However, critics may have been premature in their remarks, and simply staking out bargaining positions for future negotiations, much as the utilities have done with Hardy's proposal, because discussion about the spill evaluation has been going on for weeks, and getting increasingly urgent because the players are hoping to get a survival study underway at Bonneville Dam next year.
Three separate stakeholder committees are looking into study alternatives, offsets, and the scientific basis for picking one alternative over another.
Another meeting is scheduled this week to estimate numbers of fish losses from reduced spill scenarios, using an updated SIMPAS model developed by federal policymakers and used in the 2000 BiOp.
It's not clear what recent research will do to change the SIMPAS modeling effort, but one thing is sure, when individual spillways are examined closely to determine survival from BiOp mandated operations, the results have usually shown less survival than previously estimated.
Corps of Engineers' spokesman Jim Athearn said that's been the case at Ice Harbor, John Day, The Dalles and now at Lower Monumental Dam on the Snake, where 2003 research shows spill survival that averaged 90 percent instead of the 97-98 percent estimated for SIMPAS modeling. Spill regimes at Ice Harbor, The Dalles, and John Day have all changed to reflect lower survivals than originally anticipated.
The new survival estimates, expected to be completed by mid-week, will be used to build a credit-debit analysis that spells out potential fish losses and gains from a reduced spill regime.
BiOp Needs Major Overhaul
Hardy also recommended the federal agencies re-write the BiOp and shift to a regime of performance standards, "rather than 200 RPAs and very prescriptive individual measures that characterize the current BiOp." The utilities point to the fish recovery program developed with the Mid-Columbia PUDs, where results are more performance-based.
Hardy said the current BiOp allows little flexibility to achieve fish recovery. "It is basic Management 101, whether it's fish or how you manage your own staff, that you set clear goals, and you allow the staff, or in this case, action agencies, a lot of flexibility on how to reach those goals and then you hold them absolutely accountable for results.
"It's kind of elementary and yet, we've got it back-asswards in this fish program.," Hardy said. "Where we try to dictate the means and the ends and the result is you end up with one of these with everybody blaming everybody else and when you heap that on top of the tremendous conflicts and data that exist, you don't have any accountability."
He said more flexibility through performance standards would allow better biological results and save BPA "well beyond" the $100 million a year from eliminating summer spill and operating outside of peak efficiency.
If performance standards were developed to manage the hydro system, Hardy said "everything is going to be on the table," both listed and non-listed stocks. "... When you have even trading stock to balance this system, the result could even achieve steadier funding for BPA's fish and wildlife program, regardless of BPA's financial condition."
Hardy said later he represents about half of BPA's customers (his clients include public utilities Snohomish and Grant PUDs, Tacoma Power, the Pacific Northwest Generating Cooperative, Northwest Requirements Utilities and private utility Puget Sound Energy), but added that he thought all of BPA's customers agreed with his proposal to end summer spill.
He said the utilities are actively soliciting support for this scenario, both in Washington DC and among Northwest governors and others. Hardy said if it was implemented, he guaranteed it would be better for both fish and finances.
In response to a question from Washington Council member Larry Cassidy, Hardy said he was quite certain that BPA would lower rates if summer spill ended. "The odds are about 99 to 1."
But the following day, NOAA regional administrator Bob Lohn told the Council that he didn't foresee a future of no spill, but supported an evaluation that looked at the "... margins, are there places where spill could be reduced, and you could, in effect, use the regional resources that are freed up because of that to produce other alternatives that are equally effective."
Whether the federal judge in charge of the BiOp remand will allow for some changes remains a big unknown.
Environmental attorney Todd True, who represented plaintiffs in the BiOp lawsuit, said in a Dec. 16 press release that the government's plan to eliminate summer spill adds injury to insult.
"First the government insulted the law and the salmon," True said, "by relying on speculation where the law requires certainty. Now it plans to add further injury to these species by eliminating one of the few things in its illegal plan that actually helps fish."
But utilities point to the recent years of high fish abundance as another reason for curtailing the spill regime. The 900,000-fish return of fall chinook to the Columbia River in 2003 was the largest since 1948. Managers recently announced that next year's Hanford run will be more in line with the 10-year average of 190,000 fish, rather than the 380,000-fish run counted this year, with a total return of fall chinook in the 500,000-fish range.
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