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Federal Dam Operators Propose Changes in Fish Passage Spill

by Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin - October 25, 2002

Federal agencies that operate dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers are proposing to change spill patterns and accelerate planned configuration alternatives at some dams. The changes would result in less spilled water to aid juvenile salmon migration, but would not affect and may actually improve juvenile salmon survival, according to the agencies.

The Bonneville Power Administration laid out the proposal at both System Configuration Team and Technical Management Team meetings this week, saying the changes are a part of an adaptive management strategy the action agencies want to include in their implementation plan. While the next one-year plan must be completed by the end of October, BPA said it intends to work with regional forum teams through November and December to hammer out an agreement.

Suzanne Cooper of BPA said at the TMT meeting that new information calls into question the effectiveness of some of the existing actions at Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River and John Day Dam on the Columbia River. She said the action agencies have been working with the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since September regarding configuration, spill and flow requirements at some dams.

"We are looking at NMFS' 2000 biological opinion to see if modifications could be made, while still meeting the BiOp's performance standards, but at a lower cost," Cooper said.

While some TMT members considered the proposal's components to be a substantial deviation from the BiOp, Cooper said it is not a change to the BiOp, but an adaptive management step "based on new information that seems to support the alternatives." NMFS also supported that notion.

"This is part of the process," said Paul Wagner of NMFS. "The whole notion is what is the effect on survival? If survival is increased, you follow that path."

Shane Scott, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the process so far has been all federal, a consultation among the three federal action agencies and two federal fisheries agencies. "I strongly recommend that you bring the states and tribes into this process," he said. Cooper responded that bringing the proposal to SCT and TMT are a step in that direction.

One of the actions proposed by the action agencies, discontinuing spill at Bonneville Dam to aid the downstream migration of juvenile chinook salmon released in April from the USFWS' Spring Creek Hatchery, was already being considered. That action, according to a draft document released this week by the action agencies, could involve moving the hatchery facilities downstream from the dam. The hatchery is located in Washington 14 miles upriver from the dam. Because this proposal has to do with hatcheries and harvest, that is also an issue, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Ron Boyce, that falls under the governance of the ongoing U.S. versus Oregon court proceedings.

The proposal also includes an acceleration of construction projects at Ice Harbor and Lower Monumental dams on the Snake River, and at The Dalles Dam on the Columbia River. (See Story No. 7 Below) With preliminary results showing improved juvenile passage at Lower Granite Dam due to the addition this past migration season of a removable spillway weir (RSW), the action agencies are considering construction of RSWs and behavioral guidance systems at two more Snake River dams -- Ice Harbor and Lower Monumental. They also propose to accelerate the construction of a forebay guidance device at The Dalles Dam and then to reduce spill from levels called for in the BiOp. The configuration proposals would be discussed at SCT meetings, Cooper said.

Other proposals involve changes to BiOp spill at John Day and Ice Harbor dams, and to assess whether flows to aid lower Columbia River chum salmon, which are listed as threatened by NMFS, should be consistently maintained from November all the way through emergence in April and May during low water years.

Action agencies propose discontinuing spring daytime spill tests at the John Day Dam. Although both action and fisheries agencies are still awaiting results from 2002 testing at the dam, the action agency proposal said that testing so far has not shown a survival advantage for daytime spill. Over the past three years, John Day Dam spill tests have also included testing alternating nighttime spill levels by spilling 30 percent of the river for several days and alternating that with 60 percent spill, but, according to the proposal, higher level of spill is not resulting in higher survival. "Reduced spill levels may not impact survival and would increase generation," the proposal said.

Cooper said that once 2002 information from John Day Dam spill tests is available, (she expects that information to be ready sometime in November), the Study Review Work Group (SRWG) will review the data and further discussion will occur in that forum.

Although changes are targeted for spill at Ice Harbor Dam, the proposal doesn't say exactly what those changes are. Instead, it calls for a reassessment of the spill cap for summer (maybe spring) based on tailrace conditions. The proposal said that recent "evaluation results suggest survival through nighttime spill in the summer is lower than expected."

One thing the proposal needs, said TMT facilitator Donna Silverberg, is "a clear idea of the process, who makes the final decision and how the decision is made.

"We've been testing spill at John Day for several years," Cooper said. "Have we never gotten to a point where the tests are conclusive enough to act on? Clearly, it seems this is a new process for everyone."

Wagner said this is new for a BiOp in which modifications are made outside the formal BiOp consultation process.

"This is adaptive management," Cooper said. "We are not trying to change the BiOp."

Related Sites:
Technical Management Team:

Related Pages:
Power Council Plan Calls for Releasing Less Water for Fish by Jonathan Brinckman, The Oregonian, 10/19/2
ID & MT Seek Reduced Water Spills for Columbia Salmon by Jonathan Brinckman, The Oregonian, 10/16/2
Power Council Votes on Proposals for Changing Mainstem Operations by Bill Rudolph, NW Fishletter, 10/22/2
Council Proposes Changes to Mainstem Operations by Barry Espenson, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 10/18/2
BPA Mid-Columbia Customers Favor Montana/Idaho Plan by Mike O'Bryant, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 10/18/2

Mike O'Bryant
Federal Dam Operators Propose Changes in Fish Passage Spill
Columbia Basin Bulletin, October 25, 2002

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