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Fish Spill Trigger Decision Sent Back to Top Federal Execs

by Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin - November 7, 2003

With information in hand that using fish passage data could extend summer spill beyond August 31 in eight out of 13 years, and into October in one of 13 years, the multi-agency Implementation Team decided this week to ask top-ranking regional federal executives whether it should continue its investigation into developing new criteria for ending summer spill.

BPA had asked to end spill in mid-August because it was costing about $1 million each day and because a sufficient number of juvenile fall chinook (95-98 percent) had already passed Lower Granite Dam.

But, the federal executives denied the request and directed IT to look into changing the criteria for ending spill from the NOAA Fisheries 2000 biological opinion planning date of Aug. 31 to a decision based on the percentage of fish passed at the dams. Some IT members thought the fish passage information would "kill" that directive.

The Fish Passage Center said at IT's Oct. 24 meeting that a decision to end spill based on a percent of fish passed, such as 95 percent, would end spill prior to the BiOp summer spill planning date only four times in 13 years.

At its meeting this week, IT determined further that it would be costly and take time to mark more fish and set up a monitoring program to support the new spill criteria.

In addition, a 95 percent fish passage end-of-spill trigger would introduce an element of uncertainty about whether the run had actually passed.

"It seems like a good idea to give this a good and final burial," said Steve Haeseker of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But it needs to be documented in a way that would finally settle the issue about planning dates or fish passage, he added.

IT decided to notify the executives, made up of leaders from the Bonneville Power Administration, NOAA Fisheries, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, about the FPC data and the actual impact the data would have on ending spill.

Specifically, IT will ask the executives: Does the region want to change from planning dates to 95 percent fish passage realizing that spill would end after Aug. 31 in eight of 13 years and that there is considerable risk in that prediction?

If their answer is yes, then IT would go on to the next steps of identifying indexed stocks of species both unlisted and listed as under the federal Endangered Species Act. They would identify the number needed for marking and identify the costs of such a program, as well as the costs of the uncertainty of the data that could result in cutting spill before 95 percent of juveniles have passed. All of this needs to be done because the current smolt monitoring program is not designed to get a percent of passage number, said Jim Ruff, NOAA Fisheries.

That's because the requirement for ending spill has always used planning dates, said Michelle DeHart of the FPC. If the executives answer is yes, she continued, it still would be difficult to get the program up and running by the summer of 2004.

"I don't want to sound discouraging, but we're talking about an entire change in how we evaluate fish passage," she said. "It would be very difficult to put a marking program in place for 2004. It's too late and there's not enough funding to do the programs we have now."

"We had hoped to define a method for determining the date for cutting off spill," said Ken Barnhardt of BPA. "We thought that would be good for fish and would have some economic advantage, too. But it seems we're just not ready to make a decision this year."

However, if the region does decide to replace the planning date with the fish passage approach to setting the end of summer spill trigger, Ruff said it would "have to cut both ways," meaning that spill would continue until 95 percent of juveniles had passed, whether that means mid-August or October.

"If the answer is no, we would not spill to October in one of 13 years, then we don't need to do this," said John Palensky of NOAA Fisheries. He added that once BPA management sees the FPC information that they would have to spill into October, their answer would likely be no.

"If we had a process we all agreed was good, we'd use it," Barnhardt said. "But, we're not ready to set up that process yet."

Ruff thinks the BiOp is flexible enough to allow considerations of fish passage, but the "default is still Aug. 31," he said.

Related Sites:
Implementation Team:
Technical Management Team:
Fish Passage Center (the Historical Review of Fish Migration Data is available here):

Mike O'Bryant
Fish Spill Trigger Decision Sent Back to Top Federal Execs
Columbia Basin Bulletin, November 7, 2003

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