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Feds Tell Montana BiOp Operations
Won't Change This Year

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - August 8, 2003

Fearing a positive decision would move them onto slipperier legal ground, federal officials on Tuesday said they would not implement changes in federal Columbia River hydrosystem operations this summer that proponents say would yield great economic and upriver resident fish benefits without hindering salmon and steelhead recovery efforts.

"We're going to make a decision to maintain the operations as envisioned in the biological opinion," Steve Wright told an assemblage of state policy makers, biologists and fish and wildlife managers, utility and industrial interests and conservation groups. Wright is administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets the power generated in the Columbia Basin's federal hydrosystem.

BPA is also a federal action agency, charged with implementing provisions of NOAA Fisheries and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinions that are designed to avoid the jeopardy posed to Endangered Species Act-listed salmon, steelhead, bull trout and sturgeon. Other action agencies are the dam operators, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation.

Wright, who spoke for a caucus that featured the regional chiefs of the other federal entities or their representatives, left open a glimmer of hope that some portion of the flow/spill operational request from the state of Montana might be implemented yet this summer. The idea of broaching the idea with the U.S. District Court judge that, in May, declared the NOAA BiOp illegal will be discussed with federal attorneys.

"I've got to be honest -- this is a bit of a long shot," Wright said. He said that he had reluctantly agreed to the conclusion.

"I am agreeing to not disagree with this conclusion because the existing BiOp does not appear to provide adequate flexibility to respond to these facts for 2003, and our legal counsel has advised us to exercise caution when adjusting biological opinion measures during the remand by the Federal District Court, and because I believe we are committed to making progress on this issue in future years," Wright said.

Tuesday's meeting of federal executives was a strike three of sorts for the 2003 proposal. In late July, both the Technical Management Team and the Implementation Team denied the Montana proposal to provide more stable flows in the river reaches below Libby and Hungry Horse dams and use less water overall from those reservoirs to augment flows for listed salmon downriver.

It also asked for a reduction in spill from BiOp-prescribed spill in the lower Columbia River as a financial offset to the proposed reservoir operations. The spill is intended to provide a benign passage route for migrating juvenile salmon. The proposal was first offered as a "system operations request" to the TMT in early July.

TMT oversees in-season management of Columbia River and lower Snake River dams to ensure operations do not harm threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead, and IT is the policy body that oversees TMT. Both regional forums are made up of fisheries and dam managers in the Columbia River Basin.

When TMT failed to reach a consensus on the proposal at its July 16 meeting, both fisheries and river operating agencies objected to embarking on the plan this year because of the potential impact on listed Columbia River Snake River fall salmon stocks. Montana, represented by consultant Jim Litchfield, "elevated" the issue to the IT, where it also failed to win approval on July 24.

After that refusal, Montana Gov. Judy Martz fired off a letter asking the federal agencies' regional executives to consider the issues. Tuesday's hastily scheduled meeting drew a crowd, although scheduling conflicts prevented tribal policy makers from attending. Only Nez Perce, Umatilla and Spokane tribal interests were represented on the phone by staff.

The SOR called for a more gradual and prolonged release of the flow augmentation water from Libby and Hungry Horse from July through September. That would improve environmental conditions for fish in the reservoirs and streams below. Montana would limit the draft to 10 feet maximum during that period instead of the 20-foot draft in a shorter time frame (July and August) called for in the BiOp. The proposal suggests a draft of 20 feet in low runoff years and would give priority to the maintenance of minimum flows for listed bull trout.

That change in reservoir operations would cost money -- about $6 million on average, according to BPA. That's because less water would be available for power generation in late summer and early fall when the demand and price of power peaks. The water would eventually be funneled downriver but later in the year when the price for any surplus power is historically lower.

The Montana proposal suggests that spill at Bonneville, The Dalles and John Day be reduced at midsummer and then ended Aug. 15 when the vast majority of the migrating juvenile salmon will have already made their way down through the system. That would allow Bonneville to recoup the revenue lost because of the suggested Libby and Hungry Horse operations.

Montana argued that neither the changed dam operations nor the reductions in spill would appreciably affect the Snake River fall chinook. And the negative impacts to resident fish in the rivers and reservoirs from the double-peaked, BiOp prescribed flows are "direct and immediate," Litchfield said.

The state has been pushing to have the operations implemented this year so that evaluations of physical effects, such as changes in flows and water quality, could begin, as could monitoring of survival for resident fish and salmon stocks.

"I'm disappointed that we are not addressing the issues for 2003," said Ed Bartlett, who represented Martz at the meeting. Bartlett is also a member of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, which in April approved "mainstem amendments" to its fish and wildlife program that call for the very experiments that the SOR suggests.

Bartlett and other members of the Council from Idaho, Oregon and Washington said that those amendments stress the notion of further experimentation to identify actions that produce biological benefits in the most cost-effective manner.

"We need to work harder to make the changes that are obviously appropriate. I think we took a step toward that" with the day's discussions, Bartlett said.

According to Litchfield the resulting change in flows in the lower Columbia from the reduced drawdowns would be small -- just 4,800 cubic feet per second on average in July at McNary out of 150 kcfs.

The impact on salmon populations associated with stream flows reductions would be minute, from zero to 0.01 percent for Snake River fall chinook in an average flow year and up to .03 percent in low flow years. Litchfield used survival data generated by the NPCC staff utilizing the "CRISP" model.

"We didn't see a lot of survival effects," from the proposed Libby and Hungry Horse operational changes, Litchfield said.

Survival impacts from the proposed lower river spill reductions are also projected to be light, relatively, Litchfield said. Modeling done for the direst of years -- 2001's extreme drought and low flows -- indicated that the cessation of summer spill would cause a 0.01 percent in the Snake River fall chinook survival. That is so small that it's statistically insignificant, he said. The impact to that stock is slight because few of them ever face a lower Columbia River spill passage option. As many as 80 to 90- percent of the Snake River fall chinook smolts are collected at Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and McNary dams and barged downriver past Bonneville.

Projected survival impacts for Hanford Reach fall chinook were larger, about 1.3 percent according to the 2001 NMFS analysis, because they pass only one collector dam so more fish migrate in-river past the dams. The healthy Hanford stock is not listed under the ESA and is harvested at a nearly 50 percent rate.

"The basis of our proposal is that there are not enough benefits" to justify the harm to Montana and the impact of the summertime spill on ratepayers, Litchfield said.

Estimates done by the NPCC staff indicted that BiOp's summer spill, on average, costs $68 million in foregone generating revenues -- $30 million in July and $38 million in August. BPA analysis, Wright said, indicates that the hydrosystem could have generated as much as $100 million in revenues from on this year's strong market for surplus power with the water spilled at Bonneville, The Dalles, John Day and Ice Harbor during July and August. Even at the late, Aug. 5 date, the BPA analysis indicates that the reduction and then cessation of spill for the remainder of the month has the potential to bring in $10 million to $20 million in additional revenue.

The SOR called for only a partial spill reduction until Aug. 15, so only a portion of that revenue would have been captured. BPA estimated that it would have incurred a loss of about $500,000 had the SOR been implemented in mid-July -- the upriver losses minus the downriver gains in revenue.

Wright said earlier in the meeting that the SOR could only happen as a package with the revenue generated with reduced spill offsetting the lesser flows from Libby and Hungry Horse. He said that without the spill reduction, the SOR would "cost us at a time we couldn't afford it."

NOAA's regional administrator, Bob Lohn, admitted that analyses do seem to show little biological benefit from the late summer spill. But questioned whether it was time to test of flexibility of BiOp provisions left in effect at the "equitable discretion" of Portland U.S. District Court Judge James A. Redden.

"We simply have an issue that's likely to go to court and lose immediately," Lohn said. He said that NOAA is under a court-ordered remand to build a new BiOp and Montana's concerns are "very much on the table."

The agency will be asking, "Are there benefits or is it simply noise with the model" from the current spill and flow prescriptions, Lohn said

The USFWS's Fred Olney said his agency could not see any compelling reason to change the hydrosystem operational guidelines developed in consultation with the other federal agencies, tribes and the states.

"Our position is to support our biological opinion as well as NMFS' biological opinion," Olney said.

Nez Perce tribal biologist Dave Statler read into the meeting's record excerpts from a Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission letter to Wright decrying the plan to end spill Aug. 15. The July 23 letter signed by CRITFC executive director Olney Patt Jr. called the plan unacceptable, despite "Bonneville's interest in restoring tribal fisheries programs from Northwest Power Act Fish and Wildlife Program cuts and other actions in exchange for eliminating spill.."

"At Bonneville's request we have considered a broad range of salmon restoration actions that might be available to improve the survival of the affected stocks. These actions include changes in river management at other times of the year (e.g., increased spill and reduced power peaking), habitat improvement actions, increases in artificial propagation, and other actions, such as restoration of tribal law enforcement programs," Patt wrote.

"Even if the tribes found such arrangements to be acceptable, and they do not, it would be nearly impossible to successfully implement the broad array of actions necessary to alleviate the reductions in survival to all stocks affected by spill curtailment. Our concern is underscored by Bonneville's poor track record in providing offsets for changes in river operations for salmon that occurred in 2001."

The letter called the NPCC survival analysis "deeply flawed." It said CRITFC analysis indicates that the increase in direct and indirect mortality to Hanford Reach fall chinook as a result of the proposed spill reduction could be as many as 26,000 adults. Patt said the salmon need more help, not less.

"The tribes have long supported spill as the best passage route for juvenile salmon. Spill and flow establish vital normative conditions for juveniles and adult salmon passage and habitat in the mainstem Columbia and Snake rivers. While the flow and spill measures called for by the 2000 FCCRPS Biological Opinion are inadequate to recover salmon, they are certainly much better than no spill at all," Patt wrote.

The states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington, represented by NPCC members, were split in some regards on the issue.

Judy Danielson, who serves as Council chair, said Idaho supported the Montana request. She urged the federal agencies to make the changes and take the opportunity to gather an initial year of data.

She said she believed the BiOp has enough flexibility "to accommodate at least a portion of the SOR request" in 2003.

Oregon's Melinda Eden said she supported the proposed experiment as furthering the intent of the Council's newly adopted mainstem amendment. But she said time has run out in 2003 to reach agreement on a plan to monitor the effect of the changes and mitigate for any increased mortality.

Needed prior to implementation is a "carefully crafted experimental design and frankly I don't think there's been time to do that," Eden said.

Washington's Tom Karier said that the Council's new program emphasizes experimentation and should be embraced in its entirety by the federal agencies. He chided them, however, for dragging their feet.

"It is important for the federal agencies to implement a summer spill test. As the Council acknowledges, summer spill is expensive and there may be 'more effective and less costly' methods for improving fish survival," Karier said. "While there is broad support for this approach the response from federal agencies has been slow and ineffective.

"We need to see a comprehensive operation proposal that will provide some much needed relief for ratepayers and that will provide essential protection for fish by redirecting some part of the spill cost to more productive fish projects," Karier said. He said the experimental plan must include firm pledges of funding for mitigation projects.

"The Montana proposal tries to implement part of the Council Program but it is incomplete. It needs to be fully developed with an experimental design and policy about redirecting a portion of the funds for salmon recovery," Karier said. "We recommend that Montana work with the Power and Conservation Council to develop a full-fledged experiment as soon as possible with regional support."

Karier said that federal agencies "underutilize" the flexibility of the BiOp but did point out that it had been used to alter spill prescriptions at The Dalles and Ice Harbor dams when spill survival exceeded expectations.

Barry Espenson
Feds Tell Montana BiOp Operations Won't Change This Year
Columbia Basin Bulletin, August 8, 2003

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