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CRITFC Critiques Feds' 2002 River, Reservoir Operations

by Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin - December 20, 2002

River operations to protect tribal resources failed on a number of counts, including wasting water on conservative flood control management, more unacceptable flow fluctuations that leave juvenile salmon stranded along Hanford Reach, missing spill targets and unacceptable reservoir operations for tribal fishers, according to the Columbia River Inter-Ttribal Fish Commission.

But a bright spot is the use this year of water stored in Idaho's Dworshak Reservoir to augment flows in September for adult migration, a plan supported by CRITFC, the Nez Perce Tribes and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

Every spring since 1999, CRITFC has put out a river operations plan that outlines its recommendations for spring and summer salmon recovery operations, according to CRITFC's Kyle Martin, who outlined CRITFC's assessment of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' 2002 river operations at this week's Technical Management Team meeting. He said CRITFC has never received comments on its plan, although it asks every year for those comments, and that the plan's recommendations are largely ignored. Leading the list of issues CRITFC has with current river operations is flood control, Martin said.

CRITFC complained of the Corps' "conservative" flood control operations that forces early evacuation of reservoirs to protect against downstream flooding during the spring and early summer runoff. That is water that could be used instead for spring salmon migrants, CRITFC said. The Corps drafted 2 million to 3 million acre feet more than its own plan this year and 3 maf to 5 maf more than CRITFC's plan, something it said "jeopardized the probability that summer flow goals would be met."

However, Scott Bettin, Bonneville Power Administration, pointed out that the CRITFC flood control plan could have jeopardized the chum salmon operations at Bonneville Dam during the spring. The operations are designed to keep watered the chum redds below the dam through mid-April, or until emergence of fry is complete.

Lower Columbia River chum are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act and operations to protect the chum are itemized in NOAA Fisheries' 2000 biological opinion of the Federal Columbia River Power System. Those actions include holding a river flow of at least 125,000 cubic feet per second, which TMT has translated as a tailwater elevation of 11.5 feet. Releases from storage dams to meet flood control rule curves by April 10 helps maintain this level before the runoff begins. Martin said CRITFC supports the BiOp level.

"Hanford Reach is next in line," Martin said. "We saw a lot of fluctuations in flow this year and so ask the BOR (Bureau of Reclamation) to help smooth discharges in the future."

The CRITFC report said high flow fluctuations out of Grand Coulee Dam, operated by the BOR, hampered Grant County PUD's ability to provide smooth flows for juveniles out of its Priest Rapids Dam downstream from Coulee. The CRITFC river plan called for flows smoother than what BOR provided.

Tony Norris of the BOR said smoothing flows any more at Grand Coulee would require river operators to provide peaking capability from some other dam. In addition, Bettin said, stranding this year at Hanford Reach only affected 1 percent to 2-1/2 percent of fry, lower than any other year.

"You can do better than that," Martin said. "And, we're striving towards that direction."

Martin did say the "bright point" this year was the summer operations at Dworshak Dam that very closely implemented a Nez Perce, state of Idaho and CRITFC plan to reserve 200,000 acre feet of 1.2 million acre feet of Dworshak water normally released by the end of August for flow and temperature benefits in September. Those flows benefited both juvenile and adult salmon, the CRITFC report said. The ability to provide the flows had a lot to do with a higher than average snow pack in the Clearwater River Basin, said Rudd Turner of the Corps.

"Just my personal observation is that when flows in the past were cut off Aug. 31, adult counts that were at about 200 per day dropped to single digits," the IDFG's Steve Pettit said about the results of what happens when flows are cut off Aug. 31.

"You don't mention in the report that the actual runoff in the Clearwater Basin was 140 percent of normal and we can't do this in all years," Turner said.

"Yes, the hydro and meteorological conditions were very good this year," Martin said.

CRITFC laid out a number of issues it had with spill during 2002. The first is that the Corps provided three days of spill at 47,000 to 100,000 cubic feet per second at Bonneville Dam for Spring Creek Hatchery fall chinook, while the CRITFC plan suggested 10 days of spill at 75 kcfs. BPA will not allow any spill for the hatchery fish in 2003.

The Corps did not spill during the summer at Lower Granite, Little Goose and McNary dams in 2002, according to CRITFC, and daytime spill at McNary, John Day and the lower Snake River dams did not meet the CRITFC plan. Martin also asked the Corps to develop protocol to determine how to ramp spill up and down in reaction to changing total dissolved gas levels.

Another Corps failure, according to CRITFC, is its ability to meet the fall tribal fishery operations request on two counts: it failed to operate the pools behind Bonneville, The Dalles and John Day dams within one foot of a specified elevation range and it failed to meet limitations on fluctuations suggested by the tribes. When the tribes asked for a one-foot range, the Corps said it could provide a range within 1-1/2 feet, but only at the Bonneville pool. The problem is the tribes believe the full pool elevation is at 77 feet, while the Corps says it actually operates the pool at 76.5 feet. That disagreement on definition automatically throws the Corps' attempt to meet the operations out of compliance with what the tribes want.

Turner said the operation as the Corps implemented it does not put a serious strain on the system and it is producing good fishing. "Still, the Zone 6 fishing is important to the tribes and so it is important to our operations," Turner said. "But we don't see a difficulty with fishing or fishing success. Even if we aren't meeting your request, it's producing good results."

"Even though the fishing has been fabulous, there is this constant poking that we're not doing something right," Bettin said. He added that he thought the tribes caught about 186,000 fish this fall.

Finally, Martin said that CRITFC still feels the TMT process is flawed. "It's not appropriate that tribal resources are debated in this forum," he said. "We prefer government to government consultations."

Related Sites:
Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission:
Technical Management Team:

Mike O'Bryant
CRITFC Critiques Feds' 2002 River, Reservoir Operations
Columbia Basin Bulletin, December 20, 2002

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