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Idaho, Montana Present New Recommendations for Hydro Operations

by Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter, August 23, 2002

Northwest Power Planning Council members from Idaho and Montana are circulating proposed amendments to the Columbia Basin's mainstem fish program that call for making some wholesale changes to recovery priorities. The Idaho and Montana representatives have suggested that all strategies taken to improve fish passage through the hydro system should "provide the highest possible adult survivals as the first priority."

Such a shift in priorities would represent a huge sea change for the council's overall program. Back in 1994, when council members last voted on mainstem issues, the majority approved a partial-year drawdown strategy at dams on the lower Snake River, an approach that had never been demonstrated to provide juvenile fish benefits and would probably have had large adverse effects on migrating adults, according to members of NMFS' own early 1990's recovery team. One of Idaho's council members at the time, Jay Webb, resigned from the council after his refusal to support the program put him at odds with then Gov. Cecil Andrus. Only Montana's members voted against the program.

Other proposals from the two states are at odds with the flow augmentation strategy institutionalized in the latest hydro BiOp, finalized in December 2000, that spells out the current flow augmentation and spill strategy at federal dams in the Northwest.

"From our perspective," Montana council members Ed Bartlett and John Hines said in an Aug. 5 cover letter that accompanied their draft, "this proposal is consistent with the flexibility within the NMFS biological opinion whereby the specific measures for achieving the biological performance standards can be modified as new scientific information becomes available." They said it was critical for the council to recommend changes to hydro operations if the biological benefits to fish, both anadromous and resident, along with operational efficiencies, justify such changes.

"We recognize that all of these areas, particularly flow augmentation and spill, are politically sensitive migration tools," said the Montanans' letter. "Regardless, we feel that we can improve the implementation of both of these tools so that we have a more efficient and successful recovery effort."

Idaho council members concurred. "The science has come in and it's time to move," said Judi Danielson, who agreed with the Montanans that adult fish survival deserves the highest priority. She cited the report completed by consultant Al Giorgi last winter that summarized current research on the value of flow augmentation, spill and barging of Columbia Basin fish stocks.

Danielson said Idaho supports the BiOp, but considers it a "work in progress" that should be modified as the region learns more about the costs and benefits of mainstem fish passage strategies. The state wants language added to the council's new program that expresses concern for some flow augmentation strategies in the 2000 BiOp, noting that, as the Giorgi Report found, neither NMFS nor the Fish Passage Center has estimated increases in flow velocity or decreases in temperature from augmented flows, or predicted changes in fish survival from such incremental changes.

The latest Montana recommendations expand on earlier proposals to the mainstem amendment process, made by the state's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, calling for operating the dams consistent with flood control and rule curve concepts that would keep more water in reservoirs longer and benefit resident fish populations below Libby and Hungry Horse dams.

The new proposals call for managing the hydro system to approximate the shape, timing and fluctuation of a natural hydrograph, but also recommend shifting flow augmentation away from springtime and providing more water for fish migration from July through September "through a strategy that results in a high probability of refilling the storage reservoirs."

The Montana draft butts heads with current strategies. "Research has not validated the predicted benefits of flow augmentation from upstream storage reservoirs," the Montana members say, pointing out that change in water velocity in the mainstem Columbia from such releases "is minute."

The state calls for basing reservoir drawdown and inflow on local inflows, which would have more benefits for resident fish. Flow targets now in place hurt resident fish populations and don't offer any benefits for salmon and steelhead, the Montana members claim.

Montana also calls for managing spill at each project to be the most "biologically effective" and suggests that often the most "benign" spill discharge produces the greatest juvenile survival.

Idaho council members have proposed holding more water in Dworshak Reservoir through the spring in order to release more during the summer to cool the lower Snake for migrating steelhead and fall chinook, a strategy endorsed by the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and the Nez Perce Tribe. They also want the NWPPC's economic board to review a recent study of the impact of Dworshak drawdowns on the economy of that region and ask the council to then make recommendations to BPA on any fish and wildlife mitigation responsibilities "deemed appropriate" under the NW Power Act.

Montana council member John Hines said more analysis of his state's recommendations is needed to understand potential impacts on power reliability and BPA revenue. A similar recommendation already submitted to the council by Columbia-Snake irrigators that called for shifting augmented flow volumes from spring to summer months was analyzed by council staffers last April. They found a savings of about 300 aMW annually, worth about $50 million.

Bill Rudolph
Idaho, Montana Present New Recommendations for Hydro Operations
NW Fishletter, August 23, 2002

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