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Commentaries and editorials

Council Hears Possible Impacts
of Reduced Summer Spill

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - January 23, 2004

The financial windfall could be as high as $77 million and the biological loss as high as an estimated 19,000 Columbia River basin adult fall chinook salmon on average annually if hydrosystem "spill" for fish passage is turned off in July and August, according to analysis released this week.

The analysis was presented to the Northwest Power and Planning Council during its meeting at Skamania Lodge, just upstream from the lowermost dam, Bonneville, in the Federal Columbia River Power System. The presentation was made by officials from the federal agencies that collaborated on the analysis -- the Bonneville Power Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and NOAA Fisheries. The Corps operates the four lower Columbia and four lower Snake river hydro projects. BPA markets the power from the dams, and NOAA is charged with leading the recovery of salmon stocks listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The updated biological analysis was completed collaboratively by the agencies as a part of their response to a Council's request that reduced levels of spill be tested to see if similar biological benefits can be gained at less cost to the power system. It can not, analyses continue to show, but the agencies are studying the potential to "offset" losses through other actions that boost fish survival. The regional chiefs of the federal agencies last summer also expressed the need to find more cost efficient means of boosting fish survivals.

The analysis was proffered to the Council and others in the region for comment as the federal agencies move toward a March decision about whether, and how, spill tests will be implemented this summer. The biological analysis employs SIMPAS modeling developed by NOAA to judge the survival rates of 11 individual fall chinook stocks in seven test scenarios. Those seven options range from the status quo or planned spill operations to the no July/August spill option. The six deviations from status quo spill are variations of the so-called "option 2--reduced spill with evaluation" developed last fall.

"No decisions have been made with regards to where we are going with summer spill in 04," Greg Delwiche, BPA's vice president for generation supply, told the Council. That decision will be made by agencies' top regional officials. They are judging the flexibility of the federal recovery plan to allow reduce spill levels, and the offset options.

Spill is believed the safest route of passage through the hydrosystem for juvenile salmon and steelhead migrating toward the ocean. But water passed through spill gates to accommodate fish bypasses the powerhouse and represents a lost chance to generate marketable electricity. NOAA Fisheries, in its 2000 FCRPS biological opinion, calls for particular spill regimes at the dams as an action necessary to avoid jeopardizing the survival of listed fish.

"We want to try wrap this up by March," and preferably early March, the Corps' Witt Anderson said. Information about the analyses was distributed this week to participants in to the BiOp-created Regional Forum process, which includes the Technical Management Team, the System Configuration Team and the Implementation Team. Comments on the analysis and potential offset plans are due by Feb. 15.

Anderson said he thought the federal executives would be willing to meet in open session to take testimony and field questions about the summer spill test issue.

"I would highly encourage that," Council chair Judi Danielson said.

Montana's Council members, in particular, and BPA and its customers have been vocal in questioning the value of July and August's "summer spill" program. The main stocks in the river at that time are the fall chinook, with the Snake River stock being the lone listed species. Most of the fish migrating from the Snake River are collected and transported at Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and McNary dams so do not face passage stresses. And by August, a vast majority of the fall chinook have already exited the system so critics say the spill at Ice Harbor, John Day, The Dalles and Bonneville dams benefits few fish.

The SIMPAS model, which Delwiche called a decision support tool, estimates that the total impact for the 11 stocks would be 19,000 adults under an option in which summer spill was curtailed at all the dams in July and August.

Two of the options involve implementing BiOp spill in July with tests comparing BiOp spill against zero (option B) and 50,000 cubic feet per second (option C) of spill at Bonneville Dam with no spill in August at any of the dams and no spill at Ice Harbor in either month. The modeling indicated option B would reduce fall chinook returns by 9,000 and C would reduce returns by 8,000.

The most heavily impacted, as a percentage of the run, would be the Umatilla River stock, with a return loss of 400 under options B and C from the anticipated 4,200-fish return with BiOp spill. That is because the fish enter the Columbia below McNary Dam, and thus cannot be transported. They must then make their way through three dams. Direct mortality during transportation is lower than in-river migration.

The healthy Hanford wild run could see a reduction in its adult return of as much as 10,400 (if no July-August spill was employed as compared to BiOp spill). That loss would be half as much under options B and C compared to BiOp spill, according to the analysis.

The revenue potential ranges from the $77 million estimate if all available water was channeled through the turbines in July and August to $8 million for the option that calls for BiOp spill at all the dam except Ice Harbor. The B and C alternatives would allow, on average, the generation of an additional $54 million or $51 million in power revenue on average annually.

Montana Councilor John Hines said that it was his understanding that the cost of any offsets would come not from the Council fish and wildlife program budget, but from elsewhere.

"You are absolutely correct. The funding would come from the additional revenue generated from the reduction in spill," Delwiche said. If one of the six options is chosen that calls for tests at reduced spill levels, actions would be chosen to offset the expected reduction in adult salmon returns. Delwiche said that the goal for listed fish would be a 1-for-1 offset. The offset for non-listed stocks would not necessarily be 1-for-1, he said.

He said after the meeting that a beefing up of the pikeminnow management program alone would counteract the impact on the listed Snake River fall chinook. The updated biological analysis estimates that six reduced spill options would exact a toll of from two adult fish (BiOp spill except no spill at Ice Harbor) to 24 fish (no spill in July or August). The estimate assumes a 2 percent smolt-to-adult return rate.

The summary of potential offsets says that spending from $500,000 to $1 million to reduce pikeminnow predation on juvenile salmon could save 200,000 to 400,000 smolts, which translates to from 1,000 to 16,000 adult salmon. A few of those fish would be wild Snake River fish.

Other potential offset measures include a site-specific smallmouth bass management program focused on problem areas, pile dike removal, commercial harvest reductions, improved protection of Hanford Reach salmon rearing areas, avian predation research and habitat improvements.

Barry Espenson
Council Hears Possible Impacts of Reduced Summer Spill
Columbia Basin Bulletin, January 23, 2004

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