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Council OKs Mainstem Operations Amendment to F&W Program

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - April 11, 2003

Hard work, experimentation and compromise were the words uttered most often Thursday as the Northwest Power and Conservation Council caught its collective breath, and approved unanimously amendments to the Columbia/Snake river mainstem portion of its fish and wildlife program.

The reworking of the mainstem plan has been under way for two years but the intensity of the debates have heightened since the Council released a draft document in October that suggested eschewing federal prescriptions for operating the federal Columbia River hydrosystem.

The final document -- instead of calling for an end to some of those flow management strategies -- asks that experiments be mounted to determine if the actions are really benefiting the fish populations as intended. It asks the federal agencies to modify prescribed flow augmentation and spill to find answers to questions about those perceived benefits.

The document's overarching strategies indicate that the experiments may require more than tinkering.

"It includes the option of implementing large-scale field tests of hypotheses that will sometimes require changes in the hydrosystem operations," according to language that now goes to a Council editing committee for fine tuning.

"In some cases, there may be risks associated with conducting the experiment but they must be weighted against the risk of continuing operations without accurate information and the potential risk to other fish species."

The goal of the mainstem amendments is to describe river conditions and tests of dam operations that will ultimately define the best way protect all fish and wildlife that utilize mainstem rivers as habitat. The advice is directed, primarily, at the federal hydrosystem and fish and wildlife managers.

The Council used as a base for its program amendments on river conditions the dam operations described in the 2000 biological opinions issued by NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on behalf of threatened and endangered fish species. The Council's fish and wildlife program and the biological opinions are implemented by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal agencies that operate and sell power from the system of federal dams in the Columbia basin.

"These amendments support the goal of our fish and wildlife program to benefit all fish and wildlife in the basin while keeping in mind the energy needs of the region," said Council Chair Judi Danielson, an Idaho member. "The conditions we describe can be achieved through dam operations and will benefit salmon and steelhead in the lower Columbia River as well as fish in the rivers and storage reservoirs of the upper basin in Washington, Idaho and Montana."

Since the public comment period on the draft ended in early February, the Council members from Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington have considered advice that came in from all angles. And they've been negotiating amendments that would be palatable to most, if not all members. The Northwest Power Act, which created the Council, says that a supermajority (75 percent of the eight-member panel), or a bare majority of five votes if there is at least one vote from each state, is needed to amend the program.

"We have sliced and diced the draft considerably since October," Danielson said Wednesday as the Council concluded debate. "At the end of the day we have to look at a mainstem amendment that is acceptable to all of us."

The end document, according to Washington Councilor Larry Cassidy "is a perfect representation of what regional cooperation is." He said that none of the states or individuals got everything they wanted, but a willingness to give and take brought consensus.

The Council members from the other states "worked hard to accommodate my concerns while effectively and relentlessly protecting their own interests," said Montana's John Hines. He said the amendments, if implemented by the federal agencies, could well improve the efficiency of the federal power system and the fish and wildlife program.

He and Idaho's Jim Kempton said that new science emerging during the process questioned the biological value of BiOp operations such as spring flow augmentation, and spring and summer flow targets, in general. That prompted the Idaho and Montana delegations to push for draft language calling for the elimination of a BiOp requirement that requires storage reservoirs be held as high as possible by April 10, within flood control constraints. The elimination of that standard would allow more water for winter power generation, but leave less in reserve to augment flows for spring fish migrations. Those storage reservoirs are behind Libby and Hungry Horse dams in Montana, Dworshak in Idaho and Grand Coulee in Washington. The draft also said the Council did not support summer flow targets.

The final amendment erases such statements, but asserts that there is serious uncertainty about the biological benefit of such BiOp measures. In many cases those measures are carried out at great cost.

"While we weren't comfortable to say it was conclusive," Hines said of that new science, the Council instead opted to push for vigorous experimentation to "to test those hypotheses" such as uncertainties about flow/survival relationships.

Some of the tests and experiments would occur in the summer and fall.

As an example, the NOAA Fisheries 2000 biological opinion mandates water releases from storage reservoirs in Montana -- behind Hungry Horse and Libby dams -- in July and August to boost flows in the lower Columbia River to help ESA-listed juvenile salmon and steelhead migrate to the ocean. The Council suggests an experiment to release a smaller volume of water over a longer period of time -- July through September -- on the grounds that a longer, steadier release affords greater protection to upriver fish and wildlife in the rivers and reservoirs than the more rapid flow fluctuations called for under the BiOp, and would continue to benefit salmon and steelhead downstream.

The Council offers the suggestion on the assumption that the BiOp has enough flexibility to allow that type of experiment.

Danielson said the river conditions and tests described in the amendments are consistent with recommendations in the biological opinions, the Council's fish and wildlife program and state water laws.

The amendments describe numerous tests and experiments of alternative river operations related to flow, spill and reservoir drafting to better understand the benefits on fish and wildlife, including Endangered Species Act-listed and non-listed species.

"We have been saying all along that Libby and Hungry operations as provided in the new plan will benefit Montana's fish and wildlife," said Councilor Ed Bartlett of Montana. "Current science shows these operations will not harm salmon in the lower Columbia. Therefore, Libby and Hungry Horse should be operated pursuant to the plan unless future science shows otherwise."

The Council amendments also call for drafting limits of 10 feet at Libby and Hungry Horse reservoirs. Currently the reservoirs can be drafted down 20 feet from full pool, and often are drafted down more than 20 feet.

The Montana and Idaho delegations stressed the need for equity across the landscape -- for operations that are kind to unlisted resident fish that inhabit streams and reservoirs as well as to ESA listed stocks. The experimentation is intended to find operational schemes that harm neither anadromous nor resident fish, and potentially improve the lot of some or all of those stocks. The document also stresses that the experiments should find the most cost-effective way of operating the hydrosystem for fish.

Hines has said that any financial gains should be reinvested. If tests show that fish can be passed at a particular dam with a smaller amount of spill, that would mean more water would be available for power generation. Likewise, water saved in reservoirs, instead of being used to augment flows, would be available on demand to meet electrical loads, and used to water agricultural crops and other needs.

"It should be shared, not just with the ratepayers but with the program," Hines said. The Council's fish and wildlife program is funded by the Bonneville Power Adminstration, as mitigation for impacts to fish and wildlife from construction and operation of federal hydro projects BPA markets power produced by the federal Columbia/Snake power dams. The Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation operate the dams and the two federal fishery agencies are charged protecting and recovering listed stocks.

The Council, in turn, is charged both with developing a program that protects, mitigates and enhances fish and wildlife affected by the dams and assures the region an adequate, efficient, economical and reliable power supply. The governors of the states of Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington each appoint two members to the Council.

Oregon Councilor Melinda Eden in a prepared statement said that the revisions of the draft were "for the most part, positive. But our state remains concerned that fish and wildlife affected by the hydrosystem may not be on the road to recovery even with the actions in this plan." The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, as well as other fishery agencies and conservation groups, commented that the Council should call for more flow augmentation and spill to help salmon and salmon during their journeys to and from the ocean.

The draft would have "rolled back the protections of the BiOp," a document Eden says is rooted in provisions of the Council's past programs.

Though voting for the amendments, Eden faulted the process for too narrowly focusing on "whether specific river operations in the biological opinions provide a benefit to anadromous fish, and whether the benefits to anadromous fish have to be reduced to benefit resident fish or the power system."

She warned again balancing "fish protections against power supply needs."

"But my hope is that a key part of the amendments -- the assessment of specific river operations -- will in fact prove the legitimacy of the overall program, and we can get on with the business of finding the best and most efficient ways of protecting the habitats and multiple species that inhabit the mainstem, benefiting both resident and anadromous fish populations and improving the region's understanding of fish recovery."

Other tests or operations called for in the mainstem amendments include:

Fish and wildlife agencies and Indian tribes, among others, supported maintaining the spring operations called for in the biological opinions.

The final amendment, "as a special focus," calls on the federal fishery and operating agencies to examine the benefits of summer spill, primarily intended to pass migrating fall chinook from the Snake River and mid-Columbia's Hanford reach. A staff analysis indicates that the cost for the operations during July and August are high -- nearly one-third of the cost of all fish operations.

The document says there may be equal or more effective alternatives for benefiting salmon and steelhead migrants that are more cost effective.

The document in general calls for a "rigorous evaluation of the biological effectiveness and costs of spillway passage at each project and bring that information to bear in a systematic way in decisions on when and how much to spill.

"The goal of this evaluation should be to determine if it is possible to achieve the same or greater levels of survival and biological benefit to migrating fish as currently achieved while reducing the amount of water spilled, thus decreasing the adverse impact on the region's power supply, according to language in the draft that was unchanged in the final. "At the conclusion of this evaluation, the Council will conduct a public review process with the goal of providing recommendations to the federal agencies for the most biologically effective spill actions at the least cost possible.

Thursday's decision completes a public process that began in 2001 when the Council called for recommendations to amend the mainstem habitat section of the fish and wildlife program. The Council received numerous recommendations and made them available for public comment.

The Council will prepare a formal response to all of the public comments that were received and incorporate the response as part of the program amendments.

The amendments will be posted on the Council's website, , early next week, as will the response to comments when it is done.

Related Sites:

Barry Espenson
Council OKs Mainstem Operations Amendment to F&W Program
Columbia Basin Bulletin, April 11, 2003

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