Council Hears Up and Downriver Perspectives
by Bill Rudolph
Upriver and downriver Columbia Basin fish managers from four Northwest states presented their views to the Power Planning Council last Wednesday in Vancouver, WA, where council members accepted more input regarding their proposed amendments to mainstem hydro operations.
The big question is whether the council's preferred alternative, which Montana and Idaho members say would improve conditions for resident fish, has adverse effects on downriver stocks, principally salmon and steelhead. The council's alternative, which rejects BiOp flow targets and saves some of the region's water to help migrating fish later in the season, does provide a small power benefit: six million dollars' worth over BiOp operations, according to a staff analysis.
Some fish managers and other stakeholders have already testified at recent public meetings that the council alternative would be bad for juvenile salmon. Sierra Club spokesman Chase Davis has called Montana's support for the new alternative "boat ramp biology," but an analysis by the University of Washington's Columbia Basin Research group indicates the difference in survival between the two alternatives is negligible.
CBR's Chris Van Holmes said the survival analysis was performed with CRiSP, the BPA-funded salmon passage computer model, using low-, average- and high-flow scenarios to estimate the changes. The model says that overall inriver survival for all stocks, both from the Snake and upper Columbia, would be 0.08 percent less than from BiOp operations. The council alternative wouldn't have much effect on transported fish, either--adding them into the equation, the total difference in survival would only be 0.06 percent less than from current BiOp operations.
Upriver managers began with a lecture on the biological needs of burbot, a species of freshwater cod found in northern Idaho's Kootenai River. The burbot has been petitioned for listing under the ESA, while Canada has designated the species as "imperiled." Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologist Vaughn Paragamian said popular sports and commercial fisheries were closed in 1991 to protect the fish. "We need low flows in wintertime," said Paragamian, since the burbot spawn in January. He told the council that burbot need a minimum of 45 days of pre-Libby Dam flow conditions, but 90 days would be much better.
Brian Marotz, of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, told council members that flat flows from state reservoirs in summer months would help streamside habitat and improve conditions for resident fish like bull trout and white sturgeon, which are both listed under the ESA. One element of the council's preferred alternative calls for less disruptive water releases from federal projects in Montana.
"A big variation in low flows has a big impact on dewatering," Marotz said, but he told the council that the trout would not be driven to extinction by reservoir operations. However, he said native cutthroat were another issue. The native cutthroat were petitioned for ESA protection by several environmental groups, but in 2000, the US Fish and Wildlife Service determined that such drastic action was not warranted.
Washington council member Tom Karier pushed for more information, especially benefits that could be measured. "We've asked the salmon managers for quantitative evidence of flow augmentation--they're working on this," Karier said. "It would be useful for upriver as well."
Marotz agreed, noting there have been increases in bull trout redds since restoration activities have begun. BPA funds about half the cost of bull trout mitigation, Marotz said.
DeAnne Pavlik of the Spokane Tribe explained how reservoir fluctuations behind Grand Coulee affect kokanee and rainbow trout, important parts of that region's recreational fisheries and tribal economies. She cited several studies that related zooplankton production to water retention time, temperature and phytoplankton abundance. The Upper Columbia United Tribes support a mainstem amendment to reduce fluctuations in Lake Roosevelt.
Downriver biologists also spoke to the council, with Idaho, Oregon and Washington fish agencies supporting the status quo flow augmentation policy of the current BiOp. But when pressed by Karier, Idaho council member Jim Kempton and Montana's John Hines, the agencies could not produce much in the way of evidence for improved fish survival through the augmented flows.
Karier also took issue with some of the graphic presentations by state officials that lumped fish survivals from the nearly record low-flow year of 2001 with other recent years to produce a so-called flow/survival relationship.
Last month, NMFS scientist John Williams told the council that above some flow threshold, average survival seems to vary very little, "and does not correlate with flow." But below that threshold (around 75 kcfs in the Snake for chinook and 100 kcfs for steelhead), Williams said survival was lower.
Those lower survivals were evident in data from 2001. So Karier asked WDFW spokesman Bill Tweit if that year's data drove the graphs he had presented that tracked survival as a function of water transit time (in days).
"We're not implying it's a straight line," Tweit responded, although that's what the graphs showed. He also showed results of a flow/survival analysis of sockeye fry in the Cedar River near Seattle. Fish managers manipulated changes in water releases that ranged from 500 to 2,500 cfs. But Montana council member John Hines questioned the analysis.
"What's the regular flow in the Cedar?" he asked Tweit, who didn't know the answer. Then he asked if flow augmentation had "within-year" benefits. Tweit said biologists lacked the ability to test flow/survival benefits in a large system like the Columbia with so many variables, so their evidence was taken from smaller areas like the Cedar.
"The picture is not all that clear," said Idaho's Kempton. He said the council is looking for within-year benefits from flow augmentation, while fish managers are only able to see value from one year to the next. He accused them of "talking around the issue" and asked for evidence to show specific blocks of water could aid fish survival.
"I don't think of specific blocks of water," Tweit answered, "I think of specific levels of water we've decided to target." He told council members that it was extremely difficult to find incremental benefits to fish from added flows, but fish managers felt such additional flow was beneficial "when it's in the river, and the fish are experiencing it, and the ecosystem is experiencing it..."
Idaho's analysis was not immune to the criticism. When pressed by Hines, IDFW's Sharon Kiefer tried to downplay the NMFS studies, noting that they were reach survival studies, while her review was trying to relate the length of migration times to smolt-to-adult returns. She told council members that her department was working with other state agencies to complete comments on the council's alternative and would address the feds' inability to find much of a "within-year" benefit for flow augmentation.
US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Bill Conner reported on his work with fall chinook in the lower Snake, which had also found a flow/survival relationship. But his analysis lumped survival data from 1998 through 2001 and also correlated fish benefits from lower temperatures. "Flow augmentation improves the rate of survival, especially in July and August," said Conner. He called for Dworshak reservoir releases in late June or early July, because water from that project "really drives temperature changes." Idaho council members are supporting a change in operations that would save some Dworshak water for fish migrating in September. Jim Kempton said there was no policy on shaping Dworshak flows now, but it was a "huge issue" for his constituents.
Ed Bowles, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's chief of research, batted cleanup for the fish managers. He told the council that flow augmentation and spill were "inadequate, but the only tools on the table to address juvenile migrating needs of the fish." When Hines asked Bowles if he had looked at upstream effects of these "tools," he said no.
The council has extended public comment on the mainstem amendments until Feb. 7, with a vote on the final package slated for their March meeting. Meanwhile, they have charged the panel of independent scientists who do review work for both NMFS and the council to look at flow augmentation issues and report on the various agencies' technical results by Jan. 31. The Columbia Basin Inter-Tribal Fish Commission added a few questions of their own which the panel will also address by the end of the month.
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