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Commentaries and editorials

River Managers Begin Conversation
on Setting Spill Limits

by Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin - September 5, 2003

The multi-agency Implementation Team met this week to begin discussions about how to determine when spring and summer spill should begin and end, concluding that it needed more historical fish passage information before it can provide the guidance for making those determinations in-season.

Summer spill at lower Columbia River dams ended at midnight August 31, but the Bonneville Power Administration, along with the State of Montana, had pushed to end spill two weeks earlier, saying that enough of the juvenile run had passed through the system and the operation was costing as much as $1 million per day in August.

August 31 is the planning date to end summer spill contained in the NOAA Fisheries 2000 biological opinion. But the BiOp, which allows in-season decisions on when to end spill, also aims to achieve 95 percent juvenile fish passage at the dams.

BPA argued that had already been achieved, but Technical Management Team fish managers hesitated to approve ending spill because of uncertainties about passage data and how that relates to the BiOp planning date. It elevated the issue to IT, which came to the same conclusion and then sent the issue to the Federal Executives.

First deciding to continue spill through Aug. 31, the Executives, made up of the top leaders at BPA, NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, sent the issue back to IT Aug. 26, saying IT must provide the clarity the BiOp fails to provide and develop criteria for how to begin and end spill before the 2004 spill season begins.

"Changes must be implemented before next summer to more clearly allow alternative measures that could accomplish the biological benefit associated with spill at a reduced cost," the Federal Executives said in an August 26 letter. It went on to say "the biological opinion provides little guidance for determining when to end spill in a particular year."

The Executives focused on the relationship of cost to benefits, saying that summer spill is "excessively costly relative to the biological benefits provided." The letter pointed to a recent Northwest Power and Conservation Council study showing that summer spill in August would result in an additional five listed fall chinook adults returning to the Snake River, and 2,400 unlisted adult fall chinook salmon returning to the upper Columbia River. With spill costing $1 million per day, the Executives said they are concerned that is excessively costly for the benefit.

At its Aug. 20 meeting TMT, which makes in-season operating decisions regarding fishery operations at federal dams, was unable to resolve whether fish passage data warranted ending spill earlier than the planning date. It determined that there is a lack of regional agreement as to what criteria should be used to make the determination and whether the planning date is a hard constraint. It asked IT to determine whether enough of the endangered salmon run had passed to end spill and if that meets the intent of the BiOp.

IT met this week, not to determine the criteria for spill, but to talk about how to develop those criteria, or "how the conversation begins," said IT facilitator Donna Silverberg. "This is not a conversation about substance, but about how and who should be in the conversation," adding that for a lot of people there is a lot of angst around the issue.

"Managing to the planning date is simple," said Jim Ruff of NOAA Fisheries. "Managing to the migration is dynamic and people will need to accept some uncertainty."

He said that IT, working with the technical managers at TMT, must come up with a methodology that will help to manage the beginning and the ending of spill in spring and summer. "If not, it will be the planning date," he said. However, he said, the Executives want a "better way of doing business."

Tony Nigro, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that there should be a separate set of participants for setting the biological criteria and setting the cost-effective criteria, but Jim Litchfield, representing Montana, said the BiOp does incorporate cost-effective considerations and so should IT.

"August 31 has cost-effective in it, otherwise the date would have been in September," Litchfield said. "Every action in the BiOp has a judgment. To say we just deal with biology, I don't know what that means. We don't operate in a vacuum without economics. That's not how we behave."

However, Ruff said the Aug. 31 date is based on the biology from the 1995 BiOp, which looked at fish passage and determined the 95 percent passage at Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River is the objective.

"We were at 98 percent (at Lower Granite) and it still wasn't enough," said BPA's Scott Bettin, pointing to fish passage information from Columbia River DART (Data Access in Real Time).

Nigro suggested dealing with the biology and once that is agreed to then "T-up the cost piece." He added that process may require a deconstruction and reconstruction of the BiOp.

"This was to be a simple process," Ruff said. "Now this group is trying to write a new BiOp."

He recommended beginning the task by taking all fish passage data from the Northwest Fish Passage Center and from DART and pulling it together to look for patterns that could help determine how to make in-season decisions using the data. Look at what we have, see what it tells in different years and different conditions, he suggested.

Michelle DeHart of the Fish Passage Center said all the data was available and that she could pull it together in time for the next IT meeting in October. She added that if spill management strategies change, that may require changes in data collection.

"I don't think we'll arrive at clarity by working through the data," Litchfield said. "The hard part is determining what we want to achieve."

"It's no problem doing this exercise, but it just puts off the harder question," Nigro said. "The first phase is to make sure we all look at the same data and the second phase is to ask 'so what'?"

Related Sites:
Implementation Team:
Technical Management Team:

Mike O'Bryant
River Managers Begin Conversation on Setting Spill Limits
Columbia Basin Bulletin, September 5, 2003

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