Agencies Finally Announce
by Bill Rudolph
It was probably one of the worst kept secrets of the year, but federal agencies have finally officially spilled the particulars about their proposal to conduct a three-year evaluation of summer spill in the Columbia River hydro system.
The action agencies have picked an option that calls for some spill in July to help migrating fish, but none at all in August at the four federal dams where the hydro BiOp calls for the expensive strategy to help ESA-listed salmon and steelhead get past the concrete.
The agencies’ latest analysis shows that the spill reduction would only kill two to 20 ESA-listed fish from the Snake, depending on the smolt-to-adult- return rate (.5 percent to 4 percent) used in the analysis, and would save about $47 million over the cost of BiOp-mandated spill for the two-month period of an average $77 million. The negligible effects are due mainly to the fact that most of the listed fall chinook get a free ride downstream in barges all the way past Bonneville Dam.
But offset actions are likely to cost $5 million to $15 million to make up for thousands of non-listed fish that would be lost from the reduced spill option, resulting in a net benefit in the $35 million to $45 million range, BPA administrator Steve Wright explained during a March. 30 conference call with reporters.
The four Northwest governors sent a Mar. 29 letter to BPA and Corps of Engineers supporting a spill proposal that mitigates impacts to non-listed fish and that has been endorsed by NOAA Fisheries on the ESA questions. They wanted to make sure that any proposal with offsets was adequately monitored and evaluated and expressed support for expanded testing of removable spillway weirs and studying effects of transportation on fish survival. Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski sent his own letter to Wright Mar. 30 that re-iterated his concern that increased power production should not come at the expense of the listed and unlisted stocks.
Wright said actions to reduce pikeminnow predation on salmon and lessen daily river fluctuations in the Hanford Reach would offset about half the impact of the spill reduction. He said the agency is still looking at other actions to fill the gap, including buying out some portion of the commercial harvest, though no state has yet offered any proposal in that area.
Numbers Game Keeps Adding Up
The main sticking point for any decision could be in the offset arena. Since the feds first floated the spill reduction seriously in early February, they have refined the analysis of their proposed offsets and show less benefits than originally anticipated (50,000 adults at a cost of $2 million).
On the other hand, estimates of adverse impacts by other stakeholders, like the tribes, have gone up steadily. In a Mar. 30 press release, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission scientists said the spill curtailment could kill as many as 140,000 fish. In Early March, CRITFC spokesman Paul Lumley told an Oregon legislative hearing that up the spill reduction could lower adult returns of non-listed stocks by 50,000 fish.
Back in January, a CRITFC analysis estimated that ending spill in August would reduce adult returns from the Hanford, Deschutes ,and Snake stocks between 600 and 10,000 fish.
Wright said the feds are asking for comments until April 7 on other ways to "fill the gap." Some of the ideas floated for comment include adding $5 million to the power council’s fish and wildlife program for the next two years to fund additional mitigation actions; augmenting summer flows from Idaho’s Dworshak reservoir, although that might make it harder to refill come spring; paying for more tribal fish cops; funding added hatchery supplementation; more research into predation by birds; buying more water rights; protecting more habitat; and adding removable spillway weirs to lower Columbia dams.
It was reported that initial input from NOAA Fisheries has questioned the offsets for the ESA-listed stocks, since the action agencies’ analysis shows 2 to 20 of the Snake fish being lost from the spill reduction, while only gaining one to eleven fish from boosting the pikeminnow bounty program. But arguments over such low numbers may be a debate in the veritable dust, since even BPA’s Wright conceded that some of the estimated impacts were within the error bands of the analysis, a point that was echoed by Shane Scott, biologist with the Public Power Council.
"Now we’re arguing over ten ESA-listed fish in a model within the standard error of these analyses," Scott told NW Fishletter. He said it seemed likely that the agencies have been successful at developing more than adequate mitigation for non-listed stocks, but the real sticking point may be over these ten fish.
NOAA Fisheries regional administrator Bob Lohn said his agency would work with BPA and the Corps of Engineers to analyze the proposal to make sure any losses of ESA-listed Snake fish would be mitigated before it endorsed the spill reduction package. He didn’t voice any qualms about the Snake fish at the briefing.
The spill reduction proposal calls for July operations that include testing BiOp spill (75 kcfs day, 120% TDG night) v. 50 kcfs spill at Bonneville Dam; 24-hr. 30 percent spill at John Day Dam: BiOp spill ( 24 hr. 40% river flow) at The Dalles and two weeks of bulk spill at Ice Harbor. In August, there would be no spill at the four dams.
BPA’s Wright said if it’s enacted, the reduced spill package would likely cut the 5 percent power rate increase slated for October by a couple of percent. A final decision is expected by April 23.
The power agency was getting some Congressional support for reducing spill as well. On March 17, seven Northwest members of the House of Representatives, all Republicans, sent a letter to the White House Council on Environmental Quality calling for an end to all summer spill. They noted that Council chair James Connaughton will play a "key role" in determining whether the region embraces a new system that focuses on "real results" to replace the older BiOp with its "overly prescriptive list of 199 federal mandates."
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