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Commentaries and editorials

BPA Agrees to Spill Swap
for Dalles Dam Survival Test

by Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin - August 23, 2002

Dam operators and fisheries managers this week agreed at a multi-agency Implementation Team meeting to swap a reduced level of spill in August at some dams so that biologists can conduct a spill test at The Dalles Dam in October.

The Dalles Dam has the lowest juvenile survival rate of any federal Columbia River Dam, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. The test is to get information about spill and the survival problem this year that would allow corrective changes to the dam in 2004.

However, the test would spill water that could otherwise produce about 38,000 megawatt-hours (MWh) of electricity and that has the Bonneville Power Administration worried that it would further contribute to the agency's financial woes.

BPA is facing a revenue deficit that could exceed $860 million to $1 billion through fiscal year 2006.

The initial request came when fisheries managers at the Aug. 15 Technical Management Team meeting asked to exchange spill at John Day Dam authorized for August by NMFS' 2000 biological opinion for a spill test at The Dalles Dam spill in October.

However, BPA said it had not budgeted for spill in October and insisted that that the spill trade had to be revenue neutral before the power marketing agency could agree to it.

The test is scheduled for October, outside the normal spill season, which ends Aug. 31, because of flow conditions and having the least impact on migrating juvenile salmon, while also allowing the region to meet the 2004 construction timeline, said Paul Wagner, NMFS, at the TMT meeting. "Given that, we were asked to go shop for a potential spill swap," he said.

Wagner outlined a scenario that included shutting down the 30 percent daytime spill at John Day Dam for the last eight days of August, but continuing nighttime spill to help pass the few remaining juveniles in the river. That alone, he said, would provide about 30,000 MWh for the swap. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is conducting another test at Bonneville Dam before the end of August which would reduce spill at that dam and that amount could also be used to swap for October spill, Wagner suggested. Plus, a reduction of spill due to a scheduled outage beginning Aug. 24 at Ice Harbor Dam on the lower Snake River due to a transmission upgrades could provide as much as an additional 20,000 MWh.

He said the reduction in spill in August is not a normal BiOp measure, but the spill test at The Dalles and improvements at the dam are.

"The agency is averse to risk and is looking for ways how to avoid risk," said Rick Pendergrass of BPA. He said the agency looks at the value of the power in October versus the value in August. "Right now it looks like October is more valuable," he said. That means fisheries managers would have to give up more spill now, valued at $17.50 per MWh, to get less spill in October when the value for each megawatt-hour is expected to rise to about $27.

Steve Petitt of Idaho Fish & Game said he was concerned that if TMT made the decision, BPA would declare an emergency. "Right now it looks like BPA is declaring a financial emergency," he said.

One idea suggested by fisheries managers at TMT and discussed thoroughly when the issue was raised to IT is to use funds BPA provided in 2001 to mitigate for the lack of spill due to the power emergency it declared last year. Those funds amounted to $10 million and about $2.5 million of that went unspent, according to Bill Tweit, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Tony Nigro, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, at the IT meeting this week.

However, Suzanne Cooper of BPA said the funds were for 2001 and that Bonneville had not factored more funds into its current budget, nor its current financial analysis.

"It (the mitigation funds) was a voluntary effort on BPA's part to make conditions better than they would have otherwise," said Bill Maslen of BPA. "There were various criteria associated with their solicitation (the mitigation projects) and actions that did not meet those criteria were not implemented. There was no explicit dollar amount associated with that effort."

BPA's Dan Daley added that BPA received about $10 million in requests, but funded only projects that met the criteria. "It wasn't our intent to continue funding mitigation projects for the 2001 operation two or three years in the future," he said.

One option that could lower the power cost of The Dalles spill test would be to remove from the test the high-spill component, which the Corps' Rock Peters said would add little to the test in October's low water conditions.

By removing the high spill component, Jim Ruff of NMFS said the cost to BPA would be $450,000, while it would realize spill savings from reduced spill at John Day and Bonneville dams of $521,000, given the energy price information provided by BPA. "In other words, we would need to curtail spill at John Day Dam for only four days," he said.

"Actually, if we go to zero daytime spill and 45 percent spill at night through the end of the month at John Day, that would likely be an optimal biological option, in terms of providing maximum biological benefit while still keeping the October spill program revenue-neutral," Ruff said.

All IT members -- river operating agencies like BPA, the Corps and the Bureau of Reclamation, and state and federal fisheries managers -- supported The Dalles spill test and the swap. However, Bob Heinith of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission thought daytime spill at John Day Dam should continue, saying that it is providing important information about the tail of the juvenile migration and would provide more information about adult fallback at the dam.

"That is important information, given the fact that we have hundreds of thousands of adult fall chinook heading upriver," Heinith said. "It seems to CRITFC that BPA ought to step up to the plate and fund the October spill test. I hate to sacrifice the information we would be gaining from these ongoing studies."

Ultimately IT operations and salmon managers agreed to conduct the spill test at Bonneville Dam and apply the savings through the end of the month, curtail daytime spill at John Day Dam Aug. 28 and 29, as well as the last week of daytime spill at Ice Harbor Dam, beginning August 25.

"That translates into an August spill savings to BPA greater than the estimated cost of the October spill test at The Dalles," Ruff said.

Related Sites:
Bonneville Power Administration

Mike O'Bryant
BPA Agrees to Spill Swap for Dalles Dam Survival Test
Columbia Basin Bulletin, August 23, 2002

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