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Analysis: Less Spill Means More Money,
Little Impact on Fish

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - July 18, 2003

Closing the spill gates in summer when wholesale power prices are at their peak has the potential to generate millions of dollars in revenue with relatively small effect on Endangered Species Act-listed Columbia River Basin salmon and steelhead, according to Northwest Power and Conservation Council staff biological and economic analyses.

The presentation at Wednesday's Council meeting comes at a time when a member state, Montana, is pushing to have spill levels reduced in July and August at three lower Columbia River dams -- The Dalles, John Day and Bonneville. Montana has presented the request through the Technical Management Team, which makes decisions on proposed day-to-day hydrosystem operational changes that deviate from federal biological opinion operation prescriptions designed to protect salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The proposal failed to win the approval of the Columbia Basin's salmon managers during Wednesday's TMT meeting so Montana has "elevated" the request for consideration next week by the policy level Implementation Team.

The TMT and IT are parts of the Regional Forum created though NOAA Fisheries biological opinions on whether hydrosystem operations pose jeopardy to listed salmon and steelhead. Participation includes representatives from the individual states with territory in the Columbia Basin, as well as from Basin tribes and federal agencies. The Council, through its staff, also weighs in on occasion in the Regional Forum. The Regional Forum decision making responsibility ultimately rests on NOAA Fisheries and the federal action agencies with obligations under the ESA -- the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration.

"This discussion we're having today is pretty timely," Bruce Suzumoto, NPCC special projects manager, told the Council. He carried out the biological analysis using the SIMPASS statistical model developed by NOAA Fisheries and the CRISP model developed at the University of Washington.

The Council, in amendments to the mainstem portion of its Columbia/Snake river, fish and wildlife program approved in April, called for experiments to "examine the benefits of the current summer spill program for outmigrating juvenile fall chinook, and to determine whether the biological benefits can be achieved in a more effective and less costly manner."

The updated analysis indicates that there will be some negative biological consequences from reducing summer spill, particularly to upper Columbia River stocks that include the robust Hanford Reach fall chinook population. But it suggests a variety other measures that could be taken to mitigate for those losses.

The biological analysis focused on the Upper Columbia River and Snake River fall chinook stocks. The Snake River wild chinook are ESA listed and the Upper Columbia fish are not.

Any reduction in spill during July and August would reduce what is an estimated annual loss of revenue of $68 million ($30 million in July and $38 million in August). The water that is flushed through spill gates to accommodate the juvenile fish migrating down stream is unavailable for power generation. Those cost estimates represent a 50-year average and are based on an average wholesale price of $27 per megawatt hour in July and $40 in August.

Because power prices are riding high and because of the limited amount of available water, BiOp ordained spill could be particularly costly this year. The Mid-Columbia spot price for power Thursday during the high demand part of the day was $50 to $60, according to Dick Watson, the NPCC's power division chief. The projection for peak-hour contracts in August is $50.

Also making the water precious is the fact anticipated runoff down through the river system is slightly below normal. That means there is barely enough to generate at full capacity so almost everything that is spilled represents foregone generation.

"We're nearly at the peak of bypass spill costs," John Fazio, NPCC senior power systems analyst, said of the 2003 summer spill scenario. Because the proposed spill changes are suggested for the long term, Fazio used in his analysis power rates he expects will be more representative for the coming years.

He said that recent BPA analysis estimate spill costs of up to $110 million this year.

"My guess is that we would come in a little lower" but still well above the 50-year average developed for the long-term analysis, Fazio said.

The BiOp calls for varying levels of summertime spill at the three Columbia River dams and Ice Harbor dam on the lower Snake River in southeast Washington. Those four projects do not have the facilities to collect and transport the migrating juvenile fish downriver barge. During the summer, "maximum" transportation is called from Lower Granite, Little Goose and Lower Monumental dams on the lower Snake and McNary Dam on the Columbia.

The BiOp calls for spill at the four projects until 95 percent of the migration has passed. Spill is generally considered more benign passage for in-river migrants than turbine or mechanical passage. The vast majority of the young fall chinook swim past Bonneville, the lowermost dam in the system, between mid-June and mid- to late July.

Because of the relatively small number of fish that remain in-river by late July and August, the survival impact is light, Suzumoto said. His analysis showed that only about 1,500 out of 2.1 million Snake River juveniles would be lost if there were not spill in July and August. His modeling estimated that 680,000 out of 22.2 million Upper Columbia fall chinook juveniles would be lost if summer spill is curtailed.

The Snake River mortality is low "because the vast majority of the fish are transported," Suzumoto said. The Upper Columbia migrants pass only one collection/transportation facility -- McNary -- so many more stay in-river.

If spill were curtailed only in August, the analysis estimates that 500 Snake River and 240,000 juveniles would be lost because that means of dam passage had been foreclosed.

Using a smolt-to-adult survival rate of 1 percent, those losses would mean 15 fewer Snake River and 6,800 fewer Upper Columbia fall chinook adults would return if summer spill were ended, according to Suzumoto's analysis. That would mean, if fisheries followed recent patterns, that there would be 3,000 fewer fish available for harvest and 3,800 fewer fish would escape to spawning grounds and hatcheries.

Again, if only August spill were curtailed, the biological impacts would be lessened considerably because over 90 percent of the outmigration will have already passed Bonneville. Suzumoto estimated that five fewer Snake River and fewer 2,400 Upper Columbia adults would return. Subtracting those numbers from strong recent returns still leaves the region well above its escapement goals for wild and hatchery fish, Suzumoto said.

Suzumoto concluded that the spill regime shift would affect listed stocks little and that the stocks most affected, from the Upper Columbia, are generally healthy. He suggested that some of the extra money generated by foregoing spill could be invested in mitigation measures to counter the fish losses. Those measures could involve curtailing fisheries with compensation, reducing predation, protecting more habitat and/or increasing hatchery production.

Montana Councilors Ed Bartlett and John Hines are leading the drive to begin at least physical testing of reduced spill regimes yet this summer.

"There's a substantial amount of money involved for a relatively few impacts" to fish, Hines said. He said he supports the idea of spending extra revenue to mitigate for the losses.

Washington Councilor Larry Cassidy said that he was not yet ready to accept the negative fish impacts. He said the Council, before taking a stance, should get assurances from BPA that extra funding would be available and that it would be adequate to mitigate for the losses. He said that mitigation came up short in 2001 when a drought prompted emergency federal hydro operations that greatly reduced spill and called "paltry" the $10 million offered by Bonneville in "Action Plan" mitigation.

Tom Karier, also of Washington, said the Council should be involved in discussions with BPA regarding what mitigation policy would reign if the spill reductions are enacted.

"We need to see the options and we need to make recommendations," Karier said.

The chairman of the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority says that full mitigation for any fish losses is easier said than done. John Palensky said that efforts to reduce predation, protect habitat, and reduce harvest impacts are ongoing and have brought survival improvements.

"We don't know how to instantly go out and replace 1 million smolts," said Palensky of NOAA Fisheries. The federal agency and other state, tribal and federal entities, makes up CBFWA's membership.

Barry Espenson
Analysis: Less Spill Means More Money, Little Impact on Fish
Columbia Basin Bulletin, July 18, 2003

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