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End Summer Spill?
Power Customers Say Yes, Tribes Say No

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - December 12, 2003

A spokesman for wholesale power customers and tribal fish advocates, alternately, asked for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's support in the ongoing debate over "spill" levels at federal hydro projects on the Columbia and Snake rivers during the summer season.

Utility consultant Randy Hardy urged support for an elimination of July/August spill that is intended to aid survival of salmon and steelhead migrating in-river toward the ocean. The former Bonneville Power Administration administrator said the impacts of reduced spill on fish listed under the Endangered Species could be easily mitigated with other, less costly measures.

Tribal officials say potential impacts, to listed and unlisted fish, are understated and that spill reduction proponents exaggerate the ability to mitigate for losses through reduced predation and harvest.

The issue has been simmering since last spring when the Council approved its amendments to the mainstem portion of its fish and wildlife program. The amendments, while acknowledging spill as the most benign passage route, asked that the federal dam operators, and fish agencies and others to determine the "optimal" passage route at each dam. It also asked for those involved to conduct a "rigorous evaluation of the biological effectiveness and costs of spillway passage and bring that information to bear in a systematic way in decisions on when, and how much to spill."

The summer spill issue came to a full boil in summer when the Council's Montana members, Ed Bartlett and John Hines pushed hard to have the evaluation of fish survival to begin immediately at reduced spill levels. The top regional officials for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, NOAA Fisheries, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bonneville Power Administration opted not to deviate from spill regimes outlined in NOAA's 2000 Federal Columbia River Power System biological opinion.

BPA favored a move to reduce spill as it tried to work out of a financial hole that had forced it to push up wholesale power rates. The agency, which markets power from the federal hydrosystem, estimated that it lost $100 million during the July/August period because the water was allowed to gush through spill gates instead of turning turbines. Turbines are for the most part considered the least favored fish passage option.

A statement released by the Corps, Bonneville and NOAA on Aug. 26, said that they "believed 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." They also said that spill costs "appear exceedingly high relative to the biological benefit."

That statement, and Hardy, cited survival estimates unveiled this summer from a NPCC staff statistical analysis that indicated that the summer spill program improves the Snake River fall chinook return by as few as 10 fish in July and five fish in August. The small impact is because the vast majority of those summer migrants are collected and loaded on barges at Lower Granite, Lower Monumental, Little Goose; and McNary dams and transported to a point below Bonneville Dam for release. The Snake River fall chinook are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Hardy, in testimony presented Wednesday to the Council, said that an elimination of spill and the requirement that dam turbines be operated within 1 percent of their peak efficiency "cost Northwest ratepayers approximately $100 million per year for negligible biological benefit to the listed species."

He suggested that any negative impacts could be mitigated at minimal cost. He said two measures alone -- increasing the existing pikeminnow control program and implementing a program to disperse cormorants near Ice Harbor Dam -- would more than mitigate for the loss of listed fish. Both pikeminnow and cormorants prey on migrating salmon and steelhead.

"It would seem logical to pursue something in that zone," Hardy told the Council. "We can have it all. We can have fish and lower rates." He said that BPA's fish and wildlife costs, including spill, amount to $600 million of the agency's overall $2.5 billion budget.

And while increasing fish and wildlife costs are not the primary cause, BPA has been forced to increase power rates by nearly 50 percent in the past two years. That has had the effect of stifling economic recovery, Hardy said.

"BPA's customers strongly support finding cost-effective biological offsets to allow elimination of summer spill and the peaking efficiency requirement," he said.

Tribal spokesmen had diametrically opposed views on the value of spill, and the potential to mitigate for losses stemming from a spill reduction.

"The survival benefits of spill are irrefutable," Jay Minthorn, vice chairman of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, said. CRITFC biologists estimate that the losses from the elimination of August spill alone could number as many as 11,000-adult fall chinook annually from spawning grounds in the Columbia's Hanford Reach and the Snake and Deschutes rivers.

"There are no actions proven to offset the impacts of eliminating spill," Minthorn said the written statement presented to the Council Wednesday. "There is no evidence that sufficient mitigation exists for a sacrifice of this magnitude."

The Warm Springs Tribes' Terry Courtney also emphasized that the spill reduction will affect unlisted as well as listed stocks. The toll would potentially be largest on stocks lower in the river, such as the healthy Hanford Reach population and a listed Deschutes population, that do not have transportation as a downstream passage option.

Both asserted that BPA is no longer in dire financial straights, noting that the agency ended fiscal year 2003 "with hundreds of millions of dollars in its reserves." The tribal spokesmen said the time was not ripe for a spill reduction evaluation.

"The tribes support decision-making only after the effects are completely understood," Minthorn said. "Studies to assess the benefits of summer spill are ongoing and in further development. Studies to assess the impacts of eliminating summer spill are not developed."

A NPCC-instigated effort to develop summer spill evaluation options that could be implemented in 2004 has been under way since early fall. It has drawn the participation of the Corps, NOAA, BPA and other federal entities, as well as representatives of state and tribal fish and wildlife agencies.

The ad hoc committee has subcommittees to investigate study design possibilities and implementation feasibility and to explore "offset" options. Their products are now taking shape.

The federal executives are monitoring the process through their staffs and will discuss the issue face to face during meetings this week and next. Those executives include NOAA Fisheries' Bob Lohn, BPA's Steve Wright, the Corps' William T. Gisoli, the Bureau's William McDonald and the USFWS' David Allen.

"Key considerations, as we deliberate on implementation and evaluation options, will be the degree of useful research that can be implemented in 2004, and consistency with the statement on summer spill released by my counterparts at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bonneville Power Administration and myself on Aug. 26, 2003," Lohn wrote in a Dec. 3 letter to NPCC Chair Judi Danielson.

"While we will not be ready to outline a detailed federal proposal at the December Council meeting, I will be prepared to discuss our progress, and we intend to present our plans shortly thereafter," Lohn said.

Barry Espenson
End Summer Spill? Power Customers Say Yes, Tribes Say No
Columbia Basin Bulletin, December 12, 2003

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