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Economic and dam related articles

Spill Proposal could Cut Rates 2 Percent,
Save Up to $31 Million

by Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter, June 22, 2004

Action agencies last week released an amended spill proposal for this summer's dam operations on the Columbia River. The long awaited plan is a more moderate version of an earlier proposal that called for no spill in August at the four mainstem dams for the next three years, a move the Bonneville Power Administration said could save ratepayers up to $31 million a year and cut wholesale power costs by a percent or two.

So far, NOAA Fisheries has given the plan an informal OK, but basin tribes and environmentalists are still vehemently opposed to the idea of cutting spill, while a group of utilities said it didn't go far enough.

At a June 8 press conference announcing the plan, BPA Administrator Steve Wright said the earlier proposal would have reduced summer spill by about 55 percent, while the amended version proposes cutting spill by about 39 percent for the July-August period. August spill would cease altogether at Bonneville and The Dalles, but be maintained for the first three weeks of the month at Ice Harbor and John Day dams.

Under the proposed plan, BPA will pay Idaho Power $4 million to release water from Brownlee Reservoir in July to mitigate adverse effects on ESA-listed fall chinook.

After NOAA Fisheries reworked its survival analysis that increased adverse effects, and also refused to allow a pumped-up pikeminnow program to count as an offset to ESA losses, the spill proposal duration was reduced to fit a new offset pushed by the federal fish folks. So, more water in July (100 KAF) from Brownlee Reservoir will be released in July to help later-migrating juveniles.

Spending $4 million for the extra Brownlee water has a few participants shaking their heads. Though the NOAA Fisheries' analysis points to positive benefits for fish, the proposal included no documentation to back it up. It was reported that sample sizes in the feds' data were very small.

Other studies don't seem so positive. In 2000, the University of Washington's Columbia Basin Research published a report commissioned by Idaho water users that found the highest Snake River fall chinook survivals "were predicted with no Brownlee Reservoir flows augmentation."

The study found more Brownlee water didn't reduce temperatures, but probably increased them. Nor did added flows from Brownlee help fish migrate faster past hungry predators like pikeminnow, since the researchers said river flows were not related to fall chinook travel time.

Wright said all offsets were expected to cost about $10 million. He pegged the net benefit at $20 million to $31 million. But the power agency has already increased the pikeminnow program to help offset losses to non-listed species, and is planning to further reduce river fluctuations to help limit stranding of juvenile fall chinook in the Hanford Reach. BPA was also making funds available for hatchery and habitat improvement. The sum of all the non-listed offset actions was estimated to add 1.3 million to 1.6 million more juveniles, making up for potential losses that ranged from 130,000 to 742,000 juveniles in a total non-listed fall run of about 50 million fish.

"If implemented," said Wright, "we would expect the financial benefit would result in about a one to two percent decrease in Bonneville's rates from what they would otherwise."

Wright said more hydro generation in August would also reduce air pollution because of the 1000 MW that won't need to be generated by gas and oil-fired projects.

However, state agencies hadn't yet endorsed the offsets, though Washington fish officials were cautiously optimistic. It was reported that Gov. Gary Locke's office was prepared to support it.

NOAA Fisheries regional administrator Bob Lohn said his agency has judged that the ESA-listed Snake fall chinook would not be worse off "in any way" from this action. He said the stock "is in relatively good condition at the moment," with substantial increases in recent years, with help from hatchery fish that have supplemented wild spawners. He said when the fish were listed, about 300 fall chinook were counted. But now it's up to 20,000.

The extended NOAA analysis looked at potential impacts from early, middle, and late migrations, with low and high ranges of estimated impacts from reduced spill. The agency also adjusted those impacts from the lower-than-average flows expected this summer.

"We've tried to capture a whole range of uncertainty, and we believe we've done so," said Lohn, who said his agency applied the "best available science" to the task.

Under the best conditions, with the juvenile run size at about a million fish, and most being transported downstream anyway, NOAA estimated the spill proposal would impact about 143 juveniles migrating inriver. At worst, about 943 juveniles would be lost. Offsets from adding the Brownlee water ranged from 730 juveniles to 950 juveniles.

Lohn said when those additions were converted into returning adults, they translated into five to forty more returning fall chinook. However, a more realistic return would put that number around 10, which puts the value of each added ESA salmon around $400,000. The exercise still has critics grousing about the exercise attempting to quantify such small biological benefits, what one critic called "being lost in the decimal dust of the margins of error."

Buried in one of the appendixes to the proposal itself is the admission that the action agencies have deliberately overestimated adult return rates to mitigate for the risk and uncertainty in the analysis.

Still, that wasn't enough for environmental groups and some basin tribes, who fired off angry press releases hours before the proposal was released.

"BPA continues to cling to the concept simply to grab a few bucks in spite of the regional response," said Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. Hudson said the initial effort to cut spill only "created a lot of mistrust and ill will in the region as a result."

The environmental and fishing coalition Save Our Wild Salmon pointed to the 2001 spill reduction as a "major reason" why this year's spring run is 47 percent below expectations, another point pushed by tribal representatives.

Lohn surprised many during the June 8 press conference by tackling SOS' claims head on. When a TV reporter picked up that line of questioning, Lohn said he had to "respectfully disagree." He pointed out that the policy in question is concerned with fall chinook, and that most returns from the 2001 migration came back last year, which, as it turned out, was an extremely large run.

Both Lohn and Corps of Engineer's Brig. General William Grisoli noted that this approach was consistent with the adaptive management provisions of the biological opinion.

Environmental groups have already said they will sue NOAA Fisheries if it OKs the summer spill proposal. Earthjustice attorney Todd True told attorneys as much at an April 16 BiOp remand meeting, when he said he would file a motion to stop the proposal within a week or ten days of federal approval.

Utility groups said BPA didn't go far enough to cut spill. "The Administration and federal agencies missed another opportunity, based on good science, to help salmon and help our economy," said Shauna McReynolds, spokesperson for the Coalition for Smart Salmon Recovery. She said it was a step in the right direction and should be the start of a complete review of all our spending decisions regarding salmon recovery."

Last December, Lohn himself mentioned the puzzle over flows and fall chinook when he addressed the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. He pointed out research by USFWS scientist Billy Conner, who has been trying to determine whether higher flows help fall chinook through the lower Snake. The issue is confounded because improved survivals also correlate with increased turbidity and temperature and reduced travel time.

Lohn said Conner's results suggested that temperature is a driving factor in the fishes' survival. "Does adding more hot water help fish at all?" he asked. However, that question has become moot for the time being since the fish agency has temporarily blessed the Brownlee release as an offset for the miniscule estimated ESA fish losses.

Bill Rudolph
Spill Proposal could Cut Rates 2 Percent, Save Up to $31 Million
NW Fishletter, June 22, 2004

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