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Agencies, States, Tribes
Shape Corps Fish Mitigation Priorities

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - September 19, 2003

A $5 million effort to accelerate construction of a "removable spillway weir" at the lower Snake River's Ice Harbor Dam, and potential evaluations of the biological effects of reduced spill levels at lower Columbia and Snake river federal hydroelectric projects, are among the issues to still be debated as priorities for an anticipated $70 million in fiscal year 2004 spending money.

An appropriations package awaiting approval in conference committee earmarks $85 million for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Columbia River Fish Mitigation Project. The program goal is to carry out research related to improving steelhead, salmon and other fish passage through eight dams and reservoirs, and implement capital improvements at the structures intended to lift fish survivals.

A "regional forum" created via a NOAA Fisheries biological opinion for the Federal Columbia River Power System includes a System Configuration Team that is charged with reviewing a list of research and construction projects and setting priorities within funding limits. The SCT is chaired by NOAA Fisheries' Bill Hevlin and includes regular participation by representatives of the Corps, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bonneville Power Administration, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and the states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

The NOAA BiOp outlines measures it believes must be taken to avoid the jeopardy threat posed by hydrosystem operations to the survival of eight salmon and steelhead stocks listed under the Endangered Species Act.

If the $85 million CRFMP budget is approved by Congress and President George W. Bush, the Corps John Kranda said that about $70 million will actually be available. A list of projects still being considered by the SCT stretches as deep as $78 million. But that amount does not include adequate funding for the hoped-for spill evaluations, according to at least one SCT participant.

The Corps national headquarters as a matter of course holds back a certain percentage for "savings and slippage" in case additional money is needed elsewhere across the national landscape during the fiscal year. The Corps' Portland and Walla Walla district offices -- which implement the CRFMP projects -- have had some success in the past reclaiming that savings and slippage later in the year but there is no guarantee.

At the top of the list is a $7.7 million cost estimate for the planning, design and the start of construction on a RSW at Ice Harbor. The RSW is a massive device that would be bolted into spillways, forcing the water to go over like a waterfall. Since juvenile fish, and particularly steelhead, tend to be surface oriented, the surface flow is thought to be a safer and more effective method to pass fish than existing pressurized, deep flow under spill gates.

An RSW at the Snake River's Lower Granite Dam has gone through two years of testing. Early indications shows that its flows attracts young salmon and steelhead better, is more efficient in its use of water and sends the juvenile on their way faster than other means of passage, including spill. But the second year of data is still not quite ready for review.

A panel of federal policy makers -- executives with the Corps, BPA, NOAA, USFWS and Bureau of Reclamation -- last year urged the SCT and Corps to speed the pace of implementation of the devices at Ice Harbor and Lower Monumental dams if fish survival was deemed as good or better than that of regular spill. The water now spilled to accommodate fish passage is, in most cases, water that would otherwise spin turbines and generate millions of dollars worth of electricity. The RSWs pass more fish per volume of water.

Complicating the decision this year is the fact that spill survival problems have been identified this year at Ice Harbor. If the problems are caused by the deflectors in the spillbay, or the stilling basin below, installing an RSW would not likely provide a cure.

A final decision on the accelerated Ice Harbor installation will await the consideration of updated research results from Lower Granite and an evaluation of the Ice Harbor spill mortality. A decision to back away from the accelerated schedule would free up $5 million -- the amount scheduled for 2004 construction.

"We promised the federal executives we'd have a decision on this by November," Hevlin said.

CRITFC's Tom Lorz said that he did not see a negative from delaying the Ice Harbor implementation for year while additional data is collected at Lower Granite to better pinpoint supposed advantages of the RSW over traditional spill. He and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game's Russ Kiefer, and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Ron Boyce, chafed at the idea of pushing the project forward in large part on its economic merits.

It has been estimated that the total RSW project costs at Ice Harbor and Lower Monumental would each exceed $40 million. But BPA has estimated that those costs could be recovered within a few years because of the resulting reduction in spill. BPA's Kim Fodrea said the project should be pushed ahead if Lower Granite and Ice Harbor information reviewed in the coming weeks is favorable.

"If we've got two ways of getting the same fish benefits, you've got to go the cheapest route," she said.

Fodrea also pushed for more money to be earmarked for a recent addition to the project list -- for additional testing to determine what spill levels are optimal for fish survival. In most cases that means tests of reduced spill levels. The line item had $350,000 tentatively penciled in.

"I'd like to see the placeholder large enough to accommodate what we come up with," Fodrea said of study design and planning that has only recently begun. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council and Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority are also involved in that process.

When pressed, Fodrea suggested as much as $2 million should be reserved for the studies.

"It's time to make these fish mitigation measures cost-effective, and attainable," Fodrea said. The spill evaluation proposals were submitted in response to Northwest Power and Conservation Council amendments to the Columbia mainstem portion of its fish and wildlife program. The amendments stress the need to evaluate, in particular, summer spill "to pursue more rigorous analysis and assessment of alternatives that may provide similar, or more effective, biological benefits at reduced cost."

As a federal entity, BPA has fish and wildlife funding responsibilities to treaty tribes, as well as under the Northwest Power Act and Endangered Species Act. The agency funds the Council's program to a level of $139 million per year with an additional $36 million at most allowed for capital expenditures. BPA also reimburses the U.S. Treasury for the Corps' CRFMP projects. BPA markets the energy produced in the region's federal power system.

Hevlin pointed out that spill survival evaluations were already scheduled at six of the eight projects. But Fodrea said those tests were not geared to determine if some level of reduced spill could be implemented to gain the same survival benefit at spill levels now being implemented.

With several unresolved issues, SCT consideration of a final project priority list will slip into the new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

Barry Espenson
Agencies, States, Tribes Shape Corps Fish Mitigation Priorities
Columbia Basin Bulletin, September 19, 2003

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