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Low Water has River Managers
Mulling End to Spring Spill

by Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin - April 9, 2004

With a plummeting water supply forecast in the Columbia and Snake river basins, the Bonneville Power Administration proposed Thursday to Technical Management Team salmon managers to immediately shut down spring spill at lower Snake River dams.

The request followed a Northwest River Forecast Center final April water supply forecast that put predicted water supply at Lower Granite Dam, the farthest upstream of the four lower Snake River dams, at 15.6 million-acre feet (maf), just 72 percent of normal, April through July.

That's down from a March 20 water supply prediction of 83 percent of normal.

Even more pertinent to BPA's request is the approximately 72,000 cubic foot per second average season flows at Lower Granite Dam predicted this week by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

That prediction was based on 16.1 maf, the higher and previous water supply forecast.

The trigger that would allow spring spill for Snake River projects is when average seasonal flows are at or above 85 kcfs. Flow is currently at about 55 kcfs.

The requirement, said John Wellschlager of BPA, is spelled out in the NOAA Fisheries 2000 biological opinion of the federal hydroelectric system. "It's pretty clear the BiOp says to curtail spill on the lower Snake River," he said.

However, Paul Wagner, NOAA Fisheries, said the BiOp was based on "what we knew at the time," but that was before NOAA had new information about the benefits of leaving spring chinook in the river while they migrate, at least until May 1, rather than transporting them by barge or truck.

"85 kcfs was a good judgment call at the time," Wagner said. "But it was also clear that the information was limited. We now have three to four years of additional information."

TMT at its April 1 meeting agreed to begin spring spill at three Snake River dams. The Corps initiated spill at Lower Granite Dam Saturday evening, April 3, and at Little Goose April 7.

Lower Monumental was scheduled to begin in the next few days, but TMT agreed with Bonneville to hold that plan until a decision can be made Monday afternoon, April 12.

Spill is only provided at projects that also have collection facilities.

The issue also arose last spring when predicted average seasonal flows were just under the 85 kcfs trigger. But last year, Wagner said, the water supply was trending the other way and TMT agreed to begin and then to maintain spill through the season.

He said that spring spill should be initiated based upon both forecasts and other data. For example, spring chinook benefit from remaining in the river during their migration and are harmed by transportation, at least through April, but transportation yields better results for steelhead in low flow years.

Steelhead are currently not present in the river in large numbers. There also are benefits when using transportation in years when river flows are predicted at 50 kcfs or less and when water temperature rises above 9.5 degrees Centigrade.

"From Bonneville's perspective, we acknowledge you have new information, but for now our parameters are based on the BiOp," Wellschlager said. "There is a process to address changes in spill, like Bonneville has gone through over the past year for summer spill. From a process standpoint, we haven't seen that yet."

"The process for us has been laid out by a judge," Wagner said, referring to the remand of the BiOp by federal court judge James A. Redden. "That leaves us at somewhat of an in between point in how to incorporate new information. However, there is substance here in terms of technical information and this is a technical forum."

Redden said the 2000 BiOp relied improperly on certain mitigation actions and on June 2, 2003, remanded the BiOp to NOAA Fisheries so the agency could correct the plan. The new BiOp is still being developed.

"These criteria should have been set prior to the spring spill season," said Jim Litchfield. "I'm frustrated that we do not have clear criteria now. We need to operate whether there is a remand or not."

He added that the issue has so many dimensions and variables that TMT will likely continue to argue the issue until clear criteria for spring spill are set.

"This will not be resolved at the technical level," Wellschlager responded. "Your proposal is to change the BiOp. Ultimately it is a policy call."

"I can appreciate for planning purposes and for generation you would like it one way," Wagner said. "But from a fish perspective, we need to consider this new information and make our decision."

Wagner asked to wait for a decision until TMT's next meeting, Wednesday, April 14, but Wellschlager said BPA wasn't interested in waiting that long for a decision. He did, however, agree to meet the afternoon of April 12.

At that meeting, salmon managers said they will propose to continue spill through April and no later than May 1, or until steelhead juveniles comprise a significant portion of the migration or the water temperature rises above 9.5 C. In addition, spill at Lower Monumental Dam will not start until a decision is made.

If there is no resolution in the TMT forum by Monday, Wellschlager said, BPA will consider the BiOp the authority, which he says stops spill.

"If we can't reach a technical agreement Monday, you say spill will terminate that evening?" asked Dave Wills of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"From a Bonneville perspective, the process calls for stopping spill," Wellschlager said. "If you think otherwise, you will need a proposal to elevate the decision" to the Implementation Team, which makes policy calls for TMT, or to the Federal Executives.

The water supply forecast at Grand Coulee Dam is 53.6 maf or 80 percent of normal for the period January through July.

The forecast at The Dalles Dam is 84.2 maf, or 78 percent of normal, January through July, a drop from 87 percent of normal in March.

The Dalles April through August water supply is 73.4 maf, 79 percent of normal.

Related Sites:
Technical Management Team:
Water Supply Forecast:

Mike O'Bryant
Low Water has River Managers Mulling End to Spring Spill
Columbia Basin Bulletin, April 9, 2004

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