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Commentaries and editorials

Council Proposes Changes to Mainstem Operations

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - October 18, 2002

A draft amendment to the Northwest Power Planning Council fish and wildlife program approved Thursday would break the prescribed Columbia Basin federal hydrosystem operational mold by -- among other measures -- sending more water from upstream reservoirs in winter to generate power and possibly less in spring to augment flows for migrating juvenile salmon and steelhead.

The primary proponents of the changes in hydrosystem operations, the states of Montana and Idaho, say a "top down" approach would benefit resident fish, particularly, and wildlife at the head of the Columbia/Snake river basin, without causing appreciable harm to salmon recovery efforts.

A preliminary biological assessment done by NWPPC says the impacts on listed fish resulting from altered flow and spill regimes would be statistically insignificant. The Council is depending, however, on input collected during the comment period to better define the biological costs and/or benefits of the proposed operations.

The Council's eight members -- two each from Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington -- spent much of this week's three-day meeting in Spokane debating the language and content of the draft mainstem amendment. The agreed-upon draft will be streamlined next week by an editing committee, then released for public comment.

The comment period will extend to Jan. 10, with a final public hearing planned during the Council's scheduled Jan. 14-15 meeting in Vancouver, Wash. Public hearings will be scheduled, coincident with November and December Council meetings. Separate meetings will also be scheduled.

The Council on Thursday also approved a draft "Analysis of Adequacy, Efficiency, Economy and Reliability of the Power System," which takes a look at the anticipated effects of proposed operational changes on the power system. The Council must both "protect, mitigate and enhance fish and wildlife affected by the development, operation, and management of (hydropower) facilities while assuring the Pacific Northwest an adequate, efficient, economical, and reliable power supply."

The amendment process is an attempt to redefine, as required by the Northwest Power Act, the portion of the NWPPC fish and wildlife program that addresses the operation of federal dams. When completed the mainstem amendment will frame the Council's recommendations on how the dams might be operated to accommodate fish. The Council program is designed to protect and enhance fish and wildlife populations -- listed and unlisted -- affected by operation of the hydrosystem.

The dams' spill gates are still considered to be the most benign route of passage for migrating salmon, a point the draft document acknowledges. But the water spilled represents lost power generating opportunities. And the timing and volume of water sent downstream from storage reservoirs to augment flows for listed fish can also negatively affect the generation of electricity, and revenue. The timing and volume of water released from those reservoirs can also affect resident fish. And augmented water also has competing uses -- such as irrigation and recreation.

The draft NWPPC program amendment in some sections deviates from operations outlined by the federal government as means to avoid jeopardizing the survival of some 12 stocks of Columbia Basin steelhead and salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act. The federal document, the National Marine Fisheries Service's 2000 Federal Columbia River Power System biological opinion, describes operations that agency feels will ease migrations and passage for both adult and juvenile salmon, and improve overall survival.

The NWPPC proposal says that the BiOp provision requiring that reservoirs levels to be at upper flood control rule curves by April 10 be eliminated. The BiOp intent is to assure water is available to augment downstream flows for spring salmon migrants. The elimination of the refill requirement would allow basin reservoirs to be drawn down further in winter when power demand is at a peak.

The proposed amendment does not adopt spring or summer BiOp downstream flow targets, saying that augmented spring flows, particularly, are doubtful scientifically. It also calls for the implementation of integrated rule curve operations at Hungry Horse and Libby dams in Montana to benefit the native resident fish.

Both Idaho and Montana think that BiOp flow strategies for salmon should be weighed against the impacts to resident fish and other uses. Three facilities called on by the BiOp most often to augment flows are Hungry Horse and Libby dams in Montana and Dworshak in Idaho. Another project used to control flows is Grand Coulee Dam in Washington.

The proposal says that flow augmentation releases for salmon must be designed to reduce the impact on resident fish in the reservoirs and downstream. That means slower, steadier releases in late summer.

The draft mainstem amendment questions the wisdom of spring flow augmentation, and suggests there is enough flexibility in the BiOp to make needed changes. The draft proposes that the hydrosystem be run harder during the winter season when more power is needed and flow augmentation is not, then refill most reservoirs by the end of June and keep water levels high through July.

Idaho's proposal, largely adopted into the draft, asks that more of the cool water in Dworshak reservoir be held back longer in late summer. The BiOp prescribes that much of the water be sent downstream in July and August to help cool the Snake River for subyearling chinook migrants. The state of Idaho says that the state, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Commission and other regional entities support flow schedules that reserve water for September, when 40 percent of the Clearwater River's fall chinook smolts head down river and when fall chinook adults are on the final leg of their return to spawn.

The draft Council document chose not to tackle, for now, another controversial issue that can pit power vs. water management prescribed to benefit fish -- spill.

"The Council intends to recommend specific spill levels at specific projects after comprehensive spill survival studies have concluded," according to the draft document. "The Council intends these studies to begin immediately, without delay."

"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 fish as currently achieved while reducing the amount of water spilled, thus decreasing the adverse impact on the regions power supply," according to the draft.

A motion made by Montana's John Hines would have included a provision to allow spill only up to a 115 percent total dissolved gas limit (generally, the more spill, the more dissolved oxygen is produced). The federal standard is 110 percent, but waivers are sought through state water quality regulation in some cases that allow spill up to 120 percent TDG to aid fish passage. He cited studies he says indicate higher fish mortality as TDG levels exceeded 120 percent and delays in adult migration at higher spill levels.

Idaho's Jim Kempton said the 115 percent limit may be reasonable.

The motion died as a result of a 4-4 vote, with Idaho's Kempton and Judi Danielson and Montana's Hines and Ed Bartlett favoring the proposal and Oregon's Eric Bloch and John Brogoitti and Washington's Larry Cassidy and Tom Karier voting no.

The limit has the potential to hurt outbound migrants from lower Columbia tributaries "in a big way" because of their limited passage options -- either spill, turbine or mechanical bypass. The option of transportation around the dams is not available at hydro projects below McNary Dam.

The draft NWPPC "mainstem" amendment has been in the works for more than 18 months. The Council, as required, issued a formal request for amendment recommendations in March 2001. Recommendations poured in from a state and federal fish and wildlife management agencies as well as other state and federal agencies, tribal entities, irrigators, power and water user groups, and others.

Those recommendations generally fell into four broad categories, according to the draft.

  1. Some felt the document should mirror the federal BiOp.

  2. Others said that the BiOp does not prescribe sufficient flow, spill and passage operations to benefit listed fish and urged the Council to push for more.

  3. Others said the BiOp exceeds what is necessary for fish, to the detriment of the power supply and other uses and asked the Council to suggest scaled back flow and spill operations that were "more biologically and economically efficient in how the limited resources of the region are applied."

  4. A fourth group said the BiOp plan did not protect or mitigate non-listed fish and wildlife and asked the Council to recommend measures "either supplemental to or in some cases in conflict with current implementation approaches to biological opinion operations.

The draft amendment is aligned with categories 3 and 4. Attempts by Bloch to install Category 2 elements into the draft amendment were repeatedly rebuffed. In most cases the options to increase flows and spill were voted down 7-1 with Brogoitti siding with the majority.

Bloch said the proposed amendment veers radically from the BiOp -- particularly regarding downstream flows -- and the law that created the Council.

"It almost entirely ignores the recommendations of the Basin's fish and wildlife managers," Bloch said. "Past practice and the law requires that we base our amendment on those recommendations."

"It's clear the (proposed) program protects and enhances river uses that don't have anything to do with salmon," Bloch said, including power generation, Bonneville revenues, irrigation, navigation and recreation.

"My concern is that this program casts the Council, not in the role of fish protection, but as protectors of all the non-fish interests," he said. "They don't need our protection."

"The best thing I can say about this draft is that it may be more protective of bull trout and sturgeon," Bloch said. The attempt to bring balance to the program -- between listed and non-listed species, upriver and down river, salmon and resident fish -- would tip too far away from salmon protections, he added, by attempting to eliminate BiOp augmentation flow targets that are already too low and rarely met.

Bloch, at the start of discussions about both spring and summer hydro operations, proposed a motion to include all of the options -- from Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington -- in the draft. The intent was to draw public input.''

"It would be valuable to have the region provide us feedback," he said. The process could "help the region through some of these divisive issues," Bloch added. The motions were defeated 7-1.

"It's time for us to make those calls," Danielson said of a process that has already culled through numerous recommendations.

Related Pages:
Power Council Plan Calls for Releasing Less Water for Fish by Jonathan Brinckman, The Oregonian, 10/19/2
ID & MT Seek Reduced Water Spills for Columbia Salmon by Jonathan Brinckman, The Oregonian, 10/16/2
Power Council Votes on Proposals for Changing Mainstem Operations by Bill Rudolph, NW Fishletter, 10/22/2
BPA Mid-Columbia Customers Favor Montana/Idaho Plan by Mike O'Bryant, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 10/18/2
Dam Operators Propose Changes in Fish Spill by Mike O'Bryant, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 10/25/2

Barry Espenson
Council Proposes Changes to Mainstem Operations
Columbia Basin Bulletin, October 18, 2002

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