Council Signs Off on
by Bill Rudolph
Northwest Power Planning Council members slogged through the last of their proposed mainstem amendments to the region's fish and wildlife program last week and agreed to a final document that will represent their latest recommendations on federal dam operations on the Columbia and Snake rivers.
During an often contentious meeting last week, the council dealt mainly with last-minute revisions from Washington and Oregon to a "preferred alternative" the council produced last October before accepting more public comment.
"We pretty much hammered it to death over the past two years," said council Chair Judi Danielson, before members voted April 10 to accept the changes to the program. Before the vote, Washington member Larry Cassidy reminded everyone that half the members weren't even on the council when the process began.
When the smoke cleared, recommendations were put forth to provide more benefits for upriver resident species than are currently allowed by dam operations. The latest update calls for tests to evaluate the potential benefits to resident fish from more stable outflows from Montana reservoirs. The council also recommended starting immediate tests of summer spill in the hydro system to weigh the biological benefits of fish passage against the annual $80 million that the passage strategy costs BPA.
The council left spring flow augmentation and spill operations alone after fish agencies and tribes weighed in with comments that strongly supported current BiOp mandates. In fact, the council's final recommendations are more in line with current BiOp operations than the group's earlier preferred alternative, which called for eliminating the April 10 refill requirement for reservoirs. Nixing the refill requirement would have allowed for more flexible power operations over the winter.
But the newest recommendations call for more experiments to determine benefits from other current strategies such as operating turbines to maximize fish survival and postponing flows until later in the summer.
The recommendations are purely advisory in nature, since the council has no authority to implement them. Council members said language in the current BiOp allows for enough flexibility to perform many of the experiments they recommended. The council added specific language calling for federal agencies to implement its plan, which also calls for divvying up any money saved from a reduced spill program between ratepayers and the direct fish and wildlife program. The savings would be used to fund other BPA fish and wildlife projects that have been squeezed out by the agency's need to pay for BiOp-related actions.
The $80-Million Question
The council had earlier estimated that summer spill costs BPA $80 million annually. Some council members hoped that the expenditure could be reduced since few ESA-listed fish are migrating in the river by late summer when spill is still under way at lower Columbia dams. However, the robust stock from Hanford Reach is also heading to sea at that time of year, which is harvested at a rate of about 50 percent. Hence the question: Why spill for fish, most of which will be caught anyway?
Montana council member John Hines suggested that such savings could add another $20 million to help fund BPA's "broader mandate" of improving Columbia Basin fish and wildlife that don't benefit from BPA's prioritized spending on ESA-listed stocks.
Members voted thumbs-down to a proposed revision by Oregon council member Melinda Eden that called for "physically" modifying dams over the long-term to comply with water quality standards for total dissolved gas and temperature set forth in the Clean Water Act. Eden admitted that in her previous role as chair of Oregon's Water Quality Commission, she found that migrating salmonids seem to suffer few deleterious effects from 120 percent total dissolved gas levels (10 percent above the legal limit) in the river.
Action agencies have figured that such modifications could cost hundreds of millions of dollars without guaranteeing that such standards could be achieved at all times.
"All I see is dollar signs," commented Montana council member Ed Bartlett on Eden's proposed revision. Hines said he understood it could cost up to $80 million just to modify Hungry Horse Dam so that colder water could be withdrawn from the project.
All council members except Eden voted to discard her revision and retain the current language in that section of the program. Even Oregon's other council member, Gene Derfler, voted against Eden's proposal.
Eden also failed to get much support for proposed language that, over the long-term, called for modifying dams and taking steps to reduce toxic contaminants, "so we're not poisoning fish we spend millions of dollars on getting downstream," she explained. But Derfler did not support this language either.
Washington's Cassidy was not too excited about the proposed change. "My governor supports dredging," he said. The council did support a general statement that called for reducing contaminants.
After the council voted unanimously to accept the final revisions, Cassidy said he thought the document was "the perfect representation of what regional consensus is. It doesn't give everybody what they wanted and it doesn't keep us from moving forward to protect the resources that we've been obligated to do," he said.
Montana's Hines said he wanted to acknowledge the efforts of other council members who worked to accommodate his state's concerns "while both effectively and relentlessly pursuing their own concerns." He said some people will view the council's work "as a very small change in the program while others will view it as a very significant change." He praised what he called a strong collaborative effort to improve fish and wildlife in the Columbia Basin while trying to increase the power system's efficiency.
Oregon's Eden thanked other members for considering her state's concerns, but qualified her praise for the effort. "The state of Oregon would say that these changes, for the most part, are positive," she said. "But our state remains concerned that fish and wildlife affected by the hydro system still might not be on the road to recovery even with the actions in this plan."
Eden said the council's October alternative would have rolled back provisions in the BiOp, but the new one uses the BiOp as its foundation. "The state of Oregon sees this as tremendous progress." She said the council had spent a lot of time debating whether the benefits to anadromous fish had to be reduced to benefit resident fish or the power system.
Eden reminded members that their mandate is to protect and enhance all the region's fish and wildlife, and to ensure a reliable and adequate power supply, not trade off one element against another.
Eden said she hoped that upcoming assessments of key river operations will prove the legitimacy of the overall program, so the council can get on with the job of protecting the habitat and multiple species in the mainstem. She said she hoped that when the council once again revises its program in five years, recent debates will no longer be required and members can do what is necessary "to build this river back into the biological wonder it once was."
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