Utility Reps Support Montana,by Barry Espenson
Agency officials got an earful Tuesday from utility and industry representatives zeroing in on what they feel is a prime example of federal Columbia River salmon recovery decision-making run amok.
The occasion was the gathering of federal officials to consider hydrosystem operational changes suggested by the state of Montana.
As described by the proponents, the changes would greatly benefit resident fish in Montana and earn the federal government millions of dollars in increased power generating revenues while doing little harm to salmon in the lower part of the Columbia Basin that listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Not all agree that the salmon losses are slight or affordable. Tribes and conservation groups testifying Tuesday said they don't feel the region should backtrack on efforts made to bolster listed or unlisted stocks.
The federal executives denied the request, in large part because it failed to win a consensus of fish and wildlife managers and dam operators and because of the legal implications of the changes.
The proposed reduction in summertime flows from Montana's Libby and Hungry Horse reservoirs -- designed to augment flows for listed Snake River fall chinook primarily -- would be a deviation from the federal biological opinion that guides hydro operations. So would a reduction downriver in spill designed to pass juvenile at three Columbia River facilities. The BiOp is designed to avoid jeopardizing the survival of ESA-listed stocks.
That BiOp is now under court-ordered remand after a judge declared it illegal. The judge left the BiOp in place but ordered NOAA Fisheries to correct the deficiencies over the coming year. NOAA Fisheries regional administrator, Bob Lohn, said the time may not be right to test that BiOp's flexibility by implementing the changes proposed by Montana.
The Bonneville Power Administration's administrator, Steve Wright, told those attending a Tuesday meeting that the elimination of the summer spill program (July and August at one Snake River and three Columbia River dams) this year had the potential to generate as much as $100 million in revenue because of generally poor water and favorable market conditions. A Northwest Power and Conservation Council analysis says that the BiOp spill program costs on average $30 million in July and $38 million in August. The Montana plan calls for a test of reduced spill in July and early August with spill ended Aug. 15.
Utility interests told the federal executives that it was time to take the risk and launch Montana's proposed experimental shifts in flows and spill. Lohn and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's Fred Olney (representing USFWS Pacific Region chief David B. Allen) were part of a federal caucus considering the request. Both agencies have BiOps on hydrosystem operations.
Also participating were Wright, Jim Fodrea of the Bureau of Reclamation and Col. Dale Knieriemen of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Those three agencies, which operate the dams and market the energy they produce, are charged with implementing the BiOps.
Also sitting in were six of the eight members of the NPCC, which passed amendments earlier this year to its fish and wildlife program that advise experimentation to determine the most cost effective means of passing salmon through the federal hydrosystem.
Steve Marshal of northwest Washington's Snohomish County Public Utility District No. 1's called the issue "a test of federal decision making." The PUD is BPA's largest wholesale power customer, purchasing about 10 percent of the power marketed by the federal agency.
He urged the federal executives to implement the Montana proposal. The impacts on listed salmon had been portrayed as a few hundredths of a percent. And the revenue generated would help BPA's bottom line, and ultimately the Snohomish customers and economy. The ratepayers have absorbed a 46 percent rate increase over the past three years to further cripple a reeling economy, Marshal said.
He chastised the federal agencies for not approaching the presiding judge in the BiOp lawsuit earlier about the proposed experiment. He also said they should have been hard at work to develop a more specific test design and monitoring and evaluation protocol for the experiment, something both fish and wildlife and hydro managers have said the Montana proposal needs before implementation could begin.
John Saven, executive director of Northwest Requirements Utilities, marveled that the federal executives would not seize the opportunity to implement the Montana system operations request. Gaining the estimated $68 million in revenues by eliminating July August spill would save his customers $13.5 million per year.
The fish saved by implementing the spill are costly, Saven said. The NPCC estimates the return would be reduced by five Snake River chinook and 2,400 unlisted Hanford Reach fall chinook adults if the spill reduction in August was implemented. Since the spill represents an estimated loss of $38 million revenue, that means each of the saved listed fish would cost $7.6 million and/or each of the Hanford fish would cost $15,500, Saven said.
"Those are fairly compelling numbers," he added. He predicted that the judge would look favorably on the proposal.
Save Our Wild Salmon's Andrew Englander said he was pleased with the executives' decision to continue the BiOp operations. (SOS) is a nationwide coalition of more than 50 businesses, conservation organizations, commercial and sportfishing associations, river groups and taxpayer advocates.
"But I'm disturbed that they aren't doing it for the right reason," Englander said. The focus should be on the needs of the fish, he said, not on the fear of legal repercussions.
"The door is still open and that is not necessarily a good thing," he said of the prospect of spill and flow reductions being implemented in future years.
He said the overall issue requires more creative thinking.
"It's time we started to make management decisions that don't trade benefits" between upstream and downstream interests, he said.
"While Save Our Wild Salmon is sympathetic to Montana's concerns for the health of resident native fish and their habitat in and below these reservoirs, we strongly oppose the state's proposal," according to a statement from the groups. "It will significantly harm salmon and steelhead populations downstream."
"Current conditions for migrating salmon and steelhead in the Columbia and Snake rivers are inadequate. River flows are far below the targets set in the federal Salmon Plan. Moreover, river temperatures are at or above the lethal mark for salmon. Implementing Montana's proposal would exacerbate these poor conditions, and would retreat from an already inadequate federal Salmon Plan that was recently ruled invalid," according to the statement.
The Pacific Northwest Generating Cooperative's CEO and president wondered why, given the low survival improvement estimates, summer spill operations were included in the BiOp in the first place.
"A hard look at this wasteful operation is long overdue," said R. Patrick Reiten, who urged adoption of the SOR. His energy services cooperative is owned by 15 electric cooperatives that serve 300,000 citizens through the Northwest.
He too cited the devastating effects that rate increases have had on Northwest economies. BPA was forced to raise its rates for wholesale power and search for cost savings after finding itself in a financial crisis after a disastrous 2001. The agency's financial stability was threatened during that year's severe drought year. BPA was forced onto a volatile and extremely high market to purchase surplus power to serve its contractual commitments. The agency is still walking a fine financial line that may prompt yet another rate increase this late summer or early fall.
Reiten told the federal executives that PNGC supported the BiOp, but viewed it as "an evolving, thinking approach -- not a rigid set of operations based on outdated science, ideology and calendar dates. We do not believe the recent court rulings undermine the need of the BiOp to better reflect the best available science."
"Montana' proposal on spill is a much-needed first step. We find summer spill especially objectionable because: 1) it is not biologically supported; 2) it is not economically reasonable; and, 3) because of the first two points, it is irresponsible to saddle ratepayers with this cost."
Bud Tracy, general manager of Malta, Idaho-based Raft River Rural Electric Cooperative, seconded that notion.
"To us, this is not just a 'revenue offset' for the other portion of the SOR," Tracy said of the proposed summer spill reduction. "To us, this is an important example that highlights what is wrong with the implementation of the Biological Opinion for salmon and steelhead in the Columbia and Snake River basin."
He, like Montana and several others of those testifying Tuesday, said the system is broken. They urged for broader representation that includes tribes, states and other stakeholders, in operation decision making.
"If blindly pushing for more water regardless of science and economics is always the answer within the regional forums where the river is managed, then those forums are not functioning and must change," Tracy said.
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