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Economic and dam related articles

Summer Spill Test Proposed
at Lower Granite's Spillway Weir

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - June 18, 2004

Alongside the summer "spill reduction" proposal, another strategy has re-emerged which suggests spilling water at a Federal Columbia River Power System project where that fish passage option has not been offered before.

The idea drummed Thursday by state and tribal salmon managers during a System Configuration Team meeting calls for water to be spilled next month at the lower Snake River's Lower Granite Dam. It aims to calculate the spill passage efficiency and overall project fish passage efficiency with alternating regimes of spill through traditional spill gates and through the dam's removal spillway weir.

The weir, in place in one of the dam's spill gates for three years now, has proven to be much more efficient during spring migrations at drawing juvenile salmon away from powerhouse turbines and other routes of passage. In two years of testing it has been shown to increase spillway passage using less water than traditional spill.

Spill, considered the most benign route of passage, is mandated for spring migrants by NOAA Fisheries 2000 biological opinion on FCRPS operations. The new surface bypass technology has won favor because it appears to provide equal or better biological benefit at a lesser cost to the hydrosystem. Using less water to pass fish means there is more water available to generate electricity that can be sold by the Bonneville Power Administration.

An RSW is scheduled to be installed at a second lower Snake River dam, Ice Harbor, this winter. Federal, state and tribal fish wildlife managers have set as a goal to also have RSWs in place at the lower Snake's Lower Monumental and Little Goose dams by the 2007 spring fish migration. McNary Dam on the Columbia is also a candidate for the new technology.

The federal power marketing agency funds a variety of fish and wildlife activities as mitigation for hydrosystem impacts. Capital improvements at the dams and related research are paid by congressional appropriation through the Columbia River Fish Mitigation Program. But those funds, recently in the $65 million to $70 million range annually, are reimbursed to the U.S. Treasury by Bonneville. The SCT meets to set priorities for spending in the CRFMP

The Lower Granite RSW spill proposal immediately faces budgetary, technical and policy challenges. Bonneville has, particularly in recent years, heightened its search for efficiencies in the system and other reductions in costs. It and the Corps last week proposed a strategy that would reduce the amount of BiOp-prescribed spill at one Snake River and three Columbia River federal hydroprojects.

The proposal promises to take other actions -- "offsets" -- to improve fish survival and make up for any biological benefits lost because of the spill reduction. Summer spill is traditionally spilled in summer only at the Snake's Ice Harbor Dam, which doesn't have facilities for collecting juvenile fall chinook so that they can be transported through the hydrosystem via barge. During summer as many of the migrants as possible are collected at Lower Granite, Little Goose and Lower Monumental and transported.

The salmon managers say that the 2000 NOAA FCRPS BiOp calls for an evaluation comparing survival between juvenile fall chinook in-river passage and adult returns versus transportation of juvenile fall chinook and adult returns. The managers say that the best available science indicates that a majority of Snake River fall chinook adult returns come from juveniles that migrated in-river. A May 10 letter to the Corps and BPA explained the summer RSW spill proposal and its rationale.

The Corps responded May 28 by saying that they were "attentive to the requirements" of NOAA's BiOp and that the action agencies -- BPA and the Corps --address their intent regarding comparative transportation survival studies in their 2004-2008 BiOp implementation plan.

In the near term, according to a letter written by the Corps' Jim Athearn for Northwest Salmon office chief Witt Anderson, there are "no additional funds available for this research in FY 2004."

Nor is there likely to be. The Corps in years past has recouped at the end of the year some or all of an amount -- called savings and slippage -- that is held back from the congressional appropriation by national headquarters. The Northwest Division has been told this year it is unlikely those funds will be available this year. And the $68 million in available funding for fiscal 2004 is already overcommitted, stretched by an executive-level decision after the year had begun to fast-track construction of the Ice Harbor RSW.

"We re $1.4 million in the hole" to fund the first phase of the Ice Harbor RSW construction, the Corps John Kranda told the SCT. "What we're doing now is scrubbing everything" else in the program in an attempt to find savings to cover that deficit.

The salmon managers suggested that funding, and hydroacoustic monitoring equipment, that had been reserved for spring spill studies at the Lower Granite RSW be used for the summer test proposal. That study was cut short after only one week because spill was ended based on predictions of a low water supply. Corps officials offered a ballpark estimate that the summer proposal would require $250,000 to carry out if the same contractors were available that set up the spring study. If contractors new to the project were hired, the cost would be approximately double that amount.

Carrying out the summer RSW spill study would be "very difficult with the situation we have unless additional funds come into the program," Kranda said. Likewise, it would be difficult to implement in such a short timeframe.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Ron Boyce said his department would like the study to begin in early July. The letter of support for the plan was signed by Boyce, as well as representatives of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Corps' Tim Wik said that it would take a week, at minimum, to get a contract in place after a study plan was produced.

"But I would need to have the money first," Wik said. Boyce said that Bonneville is being asked to fund the study, over and above the CRFMP, "in the context of a long-term off-sets" for spill reductions elsewhere. He, CRITFC's Tom Lorz, the IDFG's Russ Kiefer and WDFW's Rod Woodin said obtaining information about the RSW's effects on summer migrants -- primarily Snake River subyearling fall chinook -- should be a critical prerequisite in determining whether more RSW's should be installed.

"We'd be negligent in our duties," Woodin said, to not take advantage of the data collection opportunity. The costly hydroacoustic monitoring equipment used for the short-lived spring test remains in the water at the dam.

"We've been burned more than once thinking one size fits all," Woodin said.

"We have absolutely no information on summer migrants. They are likely to react differently" to the presence of the RSW, Boyce said. He said that the technology could benefit the subyearlings even more than the spring migrants, since the juvenile fall chinook generally have lower reach survival and passage efficiency than the yearling spring chinook. The spring tests also show that the RSWs reduce delay in the forebay, effectively trimming the fishes' travel time.

Boyce stressed that, the money issue aside, officials in his state wanted to know the technical feasibility of implementing the study this year. He came away from Thursday meetings saying it was "doable" despite reservations expressed by Corps officials about rushing ahead with such a complex study on short notice.

"We don't like walking into these things without a lot of thought and coordination," said the Corps' Rock Peters.

BPA's Ken Barnhart said the proposal represented a relatively complicated policy issue that had not yet been discussed in the region. He said he doubted the policy makers at the agency would embrace the plan so quickly, if at all.

"You're pushing this awful fast," Barnhart said.

Boyce told the SCT that the highest levels of Oregon's state bureaucracy supported the 2004 study at Lower Granite. He said his own director, Lindsay Ball, broached the subject directly with BPA Administrator Steve Wright during a meeting of Monday to discuss the spill reduction proposal.

Barry Espenson
Summer Spill Test Proposed at Lower Granite's Spillway Weir
Columbia Basin Bulletin, June 18, 2004

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