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Council's Draft Flow Policy Shifts Toward Experimentation

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - April 4, 2003

The public record has closed, but deliberations go on as the Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Council tries to settle on its vision of how it would like federal agencies to operate the federal Columbia/Snake river hydrosystem for the best benefit of fish and wildlife.

The Council is expected next week to adopt final amendments the mainstem portion of its fish and wildlife program during a meeting next week at its Portland headquarters. The Council's draft amendments were released for public comment last October. Time is set aside for the mainstem amendment discussion Tuesday afternoon, Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning.

During a special meeting late last week the Council, committee discussions and in session, tried to wade through some of what were expected to be the thornier issues. At the top of the list was water management -- the operation of reservoirs and regulation of flows.

The mainstem amendments are a next phase in the Council's fifth revision its fish and wildlife program rules. The Council program created via the 1980 Northwest Power Act to protect, mitigate, and enhance fish and wildlife affected by hydroelectric development. The act requires that amendments developed through public processes be passed either by a supermajority (75 percent) of the eight-member Council or by a bare majority of five votes if there is at least one vote from each of the states -- Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

Last week the Council membership seemed to settle on an approach to water management -- particularly the use of stored water augment flows for migrating salmon and steelhead and spill for fish passage at dams -- that would stress experimentation to determine if those federally prescribed regimes do indeed help fish.

That approach would tone down language in the draft mainstem amendment released last year that challenged federal flow targets and reservoir operational schemes. Hydrosystem operators now try to follow operation guidelines described in December 2000 Federal Columbia River Power System biological opinions produced by NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The actions proposed in the BiOps are intended avoid jeopardizing the survival of salmon, steelhead and resident fish listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The draft amendment suggested the elimination of a BiOp requirement that requires reservoirs be held as high as possible by April 10, within flood control constraints. The BiOp prescription is intended to store as much water as possible to augment springtime flows for juvenile steelhead and salmon. The draft questions the biological benefit of those spring flows and says the water would be better used in midwinter to produce power, and revenues, at the dams. Under the Council's proposal, reservoirs would refill by the end of June.

The Council draft proposed in summer to release augmentation water from upriver reservoirs over a longer period of time -- May through September, rather than the current May through August -- and at more even flow levels. It is believed that would improve habitat conditions for reservoir- and river-dwelling populations in the headwaters with little or no effect on salmon and steelhead populations that migrate to and from the ocean in September. Those storage reservoirs include behind Libby and Hungry Horse dams in Montana, Dworshak in Idaho and Grand Coulee in Washington.

The draft amendments had also suggested limiting how deeply those reservoirs could be drafted for flow augmentation for salmon and steelhead migrations as compared to the biological opinion. The draft also questioned the validity of summer flow targets outlined in the NOAA Fisheries BiOp.

The amendment language discussed last week would urge federal operators to devise tests or experiments to resolve certain scientific uncertainties. The draft amendments had noted controversies over flow-survival relationships for migrating salmon, particularly in the spring, over the consistency between BiOp flow targets and other flow measures and over flow augmentation in general.

Instead of flatly stating disagreement with flow targets and augmentation, the latest discussions focus on prompting federal agencies to use the BiOp's "flexibility" to resolve those uncertainties about spill, flow and reservoir drafting. The language discussed notes that those experiments may require large scale field tests or departures from the operations called for in the BiOp.

"This is a fairly huge leap for Idaho," Council member Jim Kempton said of the proposed shift from damning the targets to merely questioning them. Much of the flow augmentation in the Snake River basin is drawn from Idaho reservoirs.

Much of the discussion last week focused on possible "sunset" provisions for those experimental actions -- language allow the spill and flow experiments to die a natural death after a time -- as well as the means to cut them short if the actions prove to be detrimental to the fish. Sunsets were suggested at the end of 5, or 7 years.

Among the uncertainties discussed was the relationship between flow augmentation, from Montana's Libby and Hungry Horse reservoirs for example, and adult and juvenile salmon survival in the lower Columbia River.

Some, such as Montana's John Hines, said "There has to be a sufficient time to let the experiment work."

Oregon's Melinda Eden stressed the need to have the ability to quickly shut down the experiments if the biological results go awry.

"This is a huge concession by the state of Oregon to have this in place for even two years, or three years, or four years."

The day for public testimony is long past, but the few that did listen to talks last week expressed concern.

Andrew Englander of Save Our Wild Salmon, who sat through the March 27-28 discussions, said he was not a fan of the draft amendment which calls for a reduction in the amount of augmentation water. The discussions last week did not assuage his fears.

"My impression is that they are going in the wrong direction," Englander said of the evolving draft document.

"From what I could understand, they are making some changes in the tone of the document, but not to what it would mean on the ground if it is implemented by the federal agencies," Englander said. Because the Council is in the ex parte portion of the amendment process, members of the audience were not privy to the pre-decisional documents containing the suggested changes to the draft document.

The experimentation called for in the suggested language would do more than stretch BiOp rules if implemented, Englander said.

The amendment language discussed last week represents "some pretty substantial changes to the plan (BiOp). I think that it is a gross misinterpretation of the plan." He said that an experiment reducing flow augmentation for seven years could put some salmon populations "dangerously close to extinction."

The Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association's Liz Hamilton likewise said the migrating salmon need more water, not less.

"The first experiment should be to give the fish what they need. What a concept," said NSIA's executive director and one of the few observers during last week's deliberations.

The mainstem amendment process began in March 2001 with a request for recommendations from fish and wildlife managers and other interested parties. It brought in some 22 recommendations from tribal organizations, state and federal entities, conservation groups, utilities, irrigation interests and individuals. The Power Act charges the Council with weighing that advice as it crafts program amendments, either including recommendations in the program or explaining why not in "findings."

The mainstem plan is to contain the specific objectives and actions that the Council would like to see the federal hydrosystem operating agencies implement on the mainstem Columbia and Snake rivers. Those measures include protection and enhancement of mainstem habitat, including spawning, rearing, resting and migration areas for salmon and steelhead and resident fish; system water management; passage spill at mainstem dams; adult and juvenile passage modifications at mainstem dams; juvenile fish transportation; reservoir elevations and operational requirements to protect resident fish and wildlife; and research, monitoring and evaluation.

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Barry Espenson
Council's Draft Flow Policy Shifts Toward Experimentation
Columbia Basin Bulletin, April 4, 2003

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