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Federal Agencies Negotiate
Plan to Reduce Spring Spill

by Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin - April 23, 2004

Federal agencies in a meeting this week agreed to continue spring spill at two lower Snake River dams until Friday and to conduct a modified spill test at Lower Monumental Dam in May.

The Bonneville Power Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and NOAA Fisheries negotiated an agreement Monday that would continue spill until 6 a.m. April 23 at Lower Granite and Little Goose dams on the lower Snake River. After that, spill would end at those dams.

They also agreed to work on an altered design for a test of juvenile spillway survival at Lower Monumental Dam that can be completed with 18 days of spill at the dam, which is down from the original 30 day spill test.

After several weeks of contentious discussion, the two paragraph decision found some still wanting a financial or biological explanation, but the reality is that the agreement was negotiated, according to BPA.

"This is a negotiated settlement that went up the chain of command," John Wellschlager of BPA told members of the Technical Management Team this week. "If you're looking for a scientific basis, you won't find it."

"In the spirit of in season management, can the April 23 date be potentially amendable based on the needs of the fish and migrating chinook?" asked Dave Statler of the Nez Perce Tribes.

"I would say that the April 23 date is not amendable," said Cindy Henriksen of the Corps.

Spill began at Lower Granite Dam April 3 and at Little Goose Dam April 7. Both have facilities to collect juvenile salmon and barging them downriver.

In addition, TMT salmon managers wanted to begin spill at Lower Monumental Dam in early April. They had submitted a system operational request (SOR 2004-03) that asked to continue spill at Lower Granite and Little Goose dams and to begin spill at Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor dams the evening of April 12.

Spill at all projects, except Ice Harbor, would stop April 30, but would be reinstated at some projects through the spring in order to conduct spill studies.

The reasoning for the SOR, they said, was based on NOAA Fisheries Science Center information that spring chinook survive better in-river early in the season, while steelhead fair better being transported in barges.

Last week NOAA Fisheries offered another option, which would have spill begin immediately at Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor dams and continue spill at all four lower Snake River projects through April 23. That is historically the time when the juvenile steelhead population migrating in the river becomes proportionately larger than the population of juvenile spring chinook migrating in the river, Paul Wagner of NOAA Fisheries said last week.

Both options -- the SOR and the NOAA Fisheries options -- spill water while also transporting juveniles, a practice that spreads the risk between leaving fish in the river and barging fish around the dams.

However, BPA did not allow spill to begin at Lower Monumental Dam due to the plummeting water supply and flow forecasts in the river.

The River Forecast Center's final April water supply forecast predicted the supply at Lower Granite Dam at 15.6 million-acre feet, for the period April through July, just 72 percent of normal and down from the 83 percent March 20 forecast.

The decision, which can be found on the web at, said that the expected seasonal flow in the lower Snake River at Lower Granite Dam is about 77,000 cubic feet per second, based upon the RFC's forecast. However, the NOAA Fisheries 2000 biological opinion that outlines operations at the dams has provisions for spill in the lower Snake River when the seasonal flow forecast is at or above 85 kcfs. That trigger is spelled out in Action 40 of the BiOp.

BPA has said the region must follow the prescription of the BiOp, while salmon managers have said that the BiOp is more flexible and allows for new information to inform and change decisions in season.

Spill at three lower Snake River dams -- Lower Granite, Little Goose and Lower Monumental dams -- costs BPA about $400,000 per day in lost revenue, according to BPA.

The decision noted that recent information about transporting juvenile has raised questions about the benefits of transporting yearling chinook salmon in April as opposed to leaving them to migrate in river.

Several discussions have occurred over the past couple of weeks at TMT, which could not decide the issue, thereby raising it to the higher level Implementation Team. IT met last week. Also unable to reach an agreement, IT turned the decision over to the Corps, which is ultimately responsible for operations at the dams.

Based on the discussion at IT, the Corps, BPA and NOAA made the decision to provide spill at Lower Granite and Little Goose dams until 6 a.m. Friday, April 23, at which time spill will stop at those dams. The agencies also decided to allow 18 days of spill at Lower Monumental Dam, with 15 days of spill dedicated to a spill survival test at the dam, while three days of spill could be used ahead of the spill test.

"Although the study is not considered the premier study," the decision said, "other valuable research can be gathered and the sunk costs are not lost." The original study would have compared the survival benefits between BiOp spill with a bulk spill pattern, a test the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers already had sunk $1.7 million into. The decision added that testing of the behavioral guidance structure at Lower Granite Dam scheduled for 2004 would be postponed.

Twenty-four hour spill for the study at Lower Monumental Dam will begin at 6 a.m. April 30 and will spill about 50% of the river through May 14 at 6 a.m. A test with no spill will follow, lasting through May 24.

That left three days of spill allowed by the federal agency agreement. Salmon managers elected to provide evening spill (6 p.m. to 6 a.m.) at Lower Monumental from April 24 to the beginning of the spill test April 30 at 6 a.m.

Related Sites:
Technical Management Team:
Water Supply Forecast:

Mike O'Bryant
Federal Agencies Negotiate Plan to Reduce Spring Spill
Columbia Basin Bulletin, April 23, 2004

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