Debate Sharpens After Economists
by Bill Rudolph
Using an updated salmon passage model, the independent panel of economists that works under the aegis of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council says there are better and cheaper ways to get fish past dams than by spilling water.
In a preliminary report that will be discussed at next week's Council meeting, they said that extended length screens at two lower Snake dams and the new corner collector at Bonneville Dam "are all highly cost-effective in comparison to August spill at Ice Harbor." The report estimated that the extended-length screens at Lower Granite and Little Goose dams are about 50 times more cost-effective than summer spill at Ice Harbor. The screens guide fish away from turbines to bypass systems where most are routed to barges.
And they said the new corner collector at Bonneville Dam's Second Powerhouse is six times more effective than August spill at Ice Harbor.
The study focused on summer operations at lower Snake dams designed to help ESA-listed fall chinook, but the economists said it could be used to show how cost-effective analysis could identify combinations of actions that benefit both ratepayers and fish. The analysis was led by Independent Economic Analysis Board member Roger Mann, a Davis, California-based consultant. The draft study said that improving the inriver fall chinook survival from the current 12-percent range wouldn't come cheap. They pegged the cost of achieving another one-percent survival boost at $600 million.
In light of that yardstick, it's easy to see how other less drastic measures might measure up, especially since most Snake River fall chinook are barged through the hydro system. Any change to dam operations for improving inriver juvenile survival therefore affects only a small part of the population.
For years, some regional parties, mainly utilities, concerned about the huge costs associated with some hydro operations to help ESA-listed fish, have asked for a look at the real costs and benefits associated with spilling water, a strategy that BPA says costs the region more than $200 million a year in foregone revenues and power purchases.
The Power Council even put a cost-effective clause in the latest iteration of its Columbia Basin's fish and wildlife plan, calling for evaluating potential fish recovery measures that might produce the same survival benefits at lower cost.
Big Ticket Items Questioned
Though this initial report stressed the limitations and uncertainties in its analysis, it said many other recovery actions could be evaluated subject to available data on fish survival and costs. It also looked at the economics of installing a removable spillway weir [RSW] at Little Goose Dam, similar to the one now undergoing tests at Lower Granite, and said it was unlikely to be cost-effective. Though the weir would be expected to get the same number of juvenile salmon over the spillway at much reduced levels of spill, its annual cost (amortized over 20 years) added up to nearly $4 million, while the annual value of reducing spill at the dam was only $1 million. An RSW at Lower Monumental Dam came out more even as to cost-effectiveness, but still questionable.
But at Ice Harbor, the report says an RSW "would easily justify its costs," which were pegged at $3.5 million annually compared to $14.5 million in power revenues that would be lost by spilling without the help of the specially engineered weir.
Spill Evaluation May Soon Be Reality
The economic study is just one of many fronts in the spill debate. Next week, federal agency representatives will go before the Power Council to explain progress on implementation of a summer spill evaluation. Though details were sketchy, it seems likely that a passage survival modeling effort will show that potential adverse effects from ending all summer spill may be less than many had anticipated.
Depending on the smolt-to adult return rates plugged into the model, it was reported that adult losses from ending summer spill at four dams would range from 4,000 to 40,000 returning fish, with results favoring the lower end of the range. Effects on ESA-listed Snake River fall chinook would be minimal, reducing numbers by 5 to 50 fish.
Some long-time players in river politics say odds are good that the feds will also suggest beefing up the pikeminnow predation project and call for further reduction of daily river fluctuations in the Hanford Reach to improve fall chinook fry survival. Those two strategies may be enough to offset any losses from spill reduction. An expanded pikeminnow bounty program would focus on the lower Columbia, which would benefit all stocks that migrate from basins below McNary Dam.
But ratepayers shouldn't expect much savings from this coming year, since it's likely the only serious reduction may occur at Bonneville Dam during a test period to measure survival differences between BiOp-mandated spill and something less than that.
The first showdown over spill reduction is likely to come next month when regional debate over Spring Creek spill is likely to come to a head. For years, BPA has spilled a considerable amount of water (for up to 10 days) at Bonneville Dam in March to help an early release of about 7 million fall chinook from a nearby hatchery run by the US Fish and Wildlife Service get past the dam.
However, with a brand new corner collector in operation, designed to improve juvenile fish survival to reach the 98-percent level estimated at the spillway, BPA representatives say spill is unnecessary. However, fish managers want both spill and the collector to operate together during any tests of the new $45-million dam modification.
In 2002, before the collector was in place, Corps of Engineers' biologists reported that spilling would boost survival from 95 percent to 96.5 percent overall. BPA spilled for three days at Bonneville that year to aid the Spring Creek release, but last year, the March spill lasted only 36 hours, after the power agency originally said deteriorating financial conditions would keep it from spilling at all. Even then, BPA figured the spill would cost $3,000 for every extra adult fall chinook created by the effort.
The Spring Creek fall chinook, called tules, are a mainstay of both commercial and sport fisheries both on the ocean and in the river, fish advocates say. The Spring Creek tules make up about 27 percent of the chinook catch off Washington and Oregon and 9 percent of the catch off Vancouver Island, according to the hatchery's manager Larry Marchant.
But fishermen, sandwiched between low prices and harvest restrictions to let ESA-listed fish pass by, couldn't catch enough tules last year and the hatchery was swamped with returning fish. Marchant said over 54,000 fish returned to the facility, but only 7,000 to 8,000 were needed for egg production.
Marchant said the spawned carcasses were trucked to Warrenton, Oregon where they were processed into pellets that will be used to fertilize streams throughout the region. The rest of the excess fish went into the federal prison system to feed inmates, Marchant said. The hatchery provided many thousands of fish for inmate meals the previous year as well, when the Spring Creek facility filled up with 60,000 extra adults.
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs