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Council Seeks Independent Science Advice on
Proposal to Test Increased Spill at Mainstem Dams

by Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin, January 17, 2014

Spring runoff spills over Ice Harbor dam, which sits just a few miles above the Snake River's confluence with the mighty Columbia River in southeastern Washington state. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council, in a split vote, decided Wednesday to ask for "independent" scientific advice on whether spill at Columbia and Snake river mainstem dams should be ramped up to see what kind of benefit such hydro operations might bring to migrating salmon and steelhead.

The "experimental spill" plan proposed by the state of Oregon and others suggested that amendments to the Council's Columbia River Fish and Wildlife Program include recommendations that mainstem dams channel more water through spill gates in spring and summer than is now called for by existing court orders and the NOAA Fisheries 2008-2018 Federal Columbia River Power System biological opinion.

The BiOp outlines measures aimed at improving the survival of Columbia River basin salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Montana's Council members, Pat Smith and Jennifer Anders, voted in favor of requesting an Independent Scientific Advisory Board review of the spill experiment proposal, as did Oregon's Bill Bradbury and Washington's Phil Rockefeller. Idaho members Bill Booth and Jim Yost voted against the proposal. Washington's Tom Karier abstained, and Oregon's Henry Lorenzen was not present for the vote.

"As part of the Fish and Wildlife Program amendment process, the Council received recommendations from Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), the Nez Perce Tribe (NPT), the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC), environmental and fishing groups, and individuals calling for implementation of an experimental spill management," according to an NPCC memo prepared by Jim Ruff, the NPCC's manager for Mainstem Passage and River Operation.

This proposal would increase spring spill levels at each mainstem federal Snake and Columbia River hydropower project up to 125 percent of total dissolved gas level in the tailrace of each dam, and then monitor survival effects over ten years compared to the current court-ordered spill program." The plummeting was implants oxygen bubbles in dams' tailraces.

The federal Clean Water Act water quality criteria for total dissolved gas (TDG) is 110 percent. The intent is to keep TDG at levels not believed to be harmful to aquatic life. High TDG levels can create gas bubble disease in migrating juvenile salmonids.

The states of Oregon and Washington have, however, provided waivers for the TDG standard in recent years during the April through August juvenile fish migration period to facilitate implementation of the FCRPS BiOp spill levels.

Those spill regimes could be changed when NOAA Fisheries next month releases a new BiOp to supersede the strategy the agency approved in 2008.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) waiver allows spill for fish passage up to the 120 percent TDG level in the tailrace of each mainstem Columbia River dam. Washington Department of Ecology (WDOE) waiver allows spill up to 115 percent in the forebay and 120 percent in the tailrace of each mainstem Snake and Columbia river dam.

Spill at the dams has long been employed with the belief that it passes migrating juvenile fish more swiftly and safely than other routes of passage, such as the turbines or mechanical juvenile bypass systems.

"Under recent operations and configuration of the Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS), smolt-to-adult return rates (SARs) have averaged 0.9 percent for wild spring-summer chinook salmon from the Snake River, well below the Northwest Power and Conservation Council (NPCC) average SAR goal of 4 percent (Tuomikoski et al. 2012)," the spill experiment proposal says. Those goals are outlined in the Council's current program, which was approved in 2009.

"In addition, Snake River wild spring-summer Chinook salmon have achieved the NPCC minimum SAR goal of 2 percent in only two years out of the seventeen years that have been monitored. Similarly, SARs have averaged 1.6 percent and achieved the 2 percent minimum in only seven of thirteen years for wild steelhead from the Snake River.

"These results indicate that recent operations and configuration of the FCRPS have been insufficient to achieve the regional SAR goals defined by the NPCC," the Oregon proposal says. "As a result, nearly all populations that constitute the Snake River Evolutionarily Significant Units (ESUs) remain at high risk of extinction."

The wild Snake River spring/summer chinook and steelhead stocks are both ESA listed.

Recent studies have "concluded that improving in-river migration conditions with increased water velocity and spill levels (thereby decreasing the number of times fish pass through the powerhouses) could improve SARs to levels sufficient to recover ESA-listed salmon and steelhead populations," according to the spill proposal.

The proponents of the experimental spill management proposal acknowledge the target 125 percent TDG level in the tailrace would exceed both Oregon and Washington water quality criteria. Thus the spill experiment would be subject to both states changing the Clean Water Act TDG requirements, and winning the endorsement of NOAA Fisheries.

The ISAB responds to questions from the NPCC, NOAA Fisheries and Columbia River basin tribes on matters of science.

Bradbury suggested Tuesday during the NPCC's Fish and Wildlife Committee meeting that "it might be sensible to send [the ISAB] some questions" about the proposal and get a response before the Council decides what fish and wildlife goals and strategies would be included in its new program.

According to the staff memo, when the ISAB completes the review of the spill proposal, the Council could review the ISAB report and recommendations at the fish and wildlife committee and the full Council, taking any additional comments and information from the region that are appropriate, before making a decision about what to do next with the spill proposal recommendation.

Idaho's Bill Booth said his state was "bound to support the BiOp as it now exists, and thus could not support the proposal." The state made that promise in a 2008 memorandum of agreement signed with BPA, which funds fish and wildlife mitigation work, and the federal agencies that operate the dams. The MOU guaranteed project funding, and required that the state support efforts to implement the BiOp.

"When we signed on we agreed to support the current spill regime," or whatever regime that might be outlined in 2014, Booth said.

Anders, whose state also signed an MOU with the federal agencies, said she "never read our accord to restrict activities such as that proposed today."

Rockefeller called the ISAB review simply "a process to better inform ourselves." The request to have the ISAB do the review was approved by a 3-1 vote in committee.

During Monday's full Council session Rockefeller suggested that a letter to the ISAB be drafted by staff as to what the Council would like to know about the proposal and envisioned study design.

"The hypothesis is that it will dramatically improve SARS," said Tony Grover, the Council's fish and wildlife director.

Karier described the spill proposal as poorly defined, and not yet suitable for scientific review.

"I think it's a mistake in not bringing the region into it," Karier said of the prospect of engaging others in a discussion of how, or if, a spill experiment should take place. He also talked about the relative uncertainty about potential impacts on aquatic life up and down the food chain.

"We're talking about raising the pollution level in the Columbia for a number of weeks, and year after year," Karier said. "It's about every living being in the river."

Anders stressed that the next step does not involve implementing such an experiment.

"I see no harm in sending it to the ISAB. It's simply a referral to the ISAB for guidance."

Rockefeller likewise said it would be useful "to have the benefit of a scientific opinion" on the spill proposal before the Council decides what strategies to use in its new program.

The Council at this point would like to complete draft amendments for release and public review by Feb. 17, with a mid-July targeted for approval of a final version.

The Council received more than 400 amendment recommendations this summer from fish and wildlife managers and others and has fielded about 200 comments critiquing those recommendations.

Under the 1980 Pacific Northwest Electric Power Planning and Conservation Act, Congress charged the Council with developing, and periodically amending, a fish and wildlife program for the Columbia River Basin to protect, mitigate and enhance fish and wildlife affected by the development and operation of hydroelectric facilities, while assuring the Pacific Northwest an adequate, efficient, economical, and reliable power supply.

The Council adopted the current version of the fish and wildlife program in 2009, which consists of the program framework; basinwide objectives and strategies; provisions relevant to the mainstem, estuary, ocean, and subbasins; and implementation guidelines. Also part of the program are the subbasin plans for nearly 60 tributaries and mainstem reaches adopted in 2004-05 and 2010-11.

The Power Act requires the Council to call for recommendations to amend the program at least every five years prior to its review of the power plan. The Northwest Power Act requires that all recommendations are to be accompanied by detailed information and data in support of the recommendations.

Fish and Wildlife Committee will continue discussions next week with sessions scheduled Dec. 17 and 18 by "Webinar." The Tuesday meeting begins at 8:30 a.m.

For more information about the program amendment process go to:

Related Pages:
Biological Effects of TDG Supersaturation by Army Corps of Engineers, Dissolved Gas Abatement Study, 5/02

Council Seeks Independent Science Advice on Proposal to Test Increased Spill at Mainstem Dams
Columbia Basin Bulletin, January 17, 2014

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