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Panel Discusses Options,
Timing on Spill Study Alternatives

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - October 17, 2003

The month ahead will be used to evaluate the technical and financial feasibility of a set of Columbia-Snake hydrosystem summer spill study alternatives that are being developed at the request of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

The proposals being produced in answer to the NPCC's newly adopted "mainstem amendments" were discussed by participants in the process during Tuesday's Council meeting in Missoula, Mont. Some spoke of the advancing strategies with optimism, others with caution and skepticism.

The Council would like to see spill regimes tested and evaluated next summer that would help determine if lesser spill levels than those now prescribed could bring equal or greater benefits to migrating fish species. Spill regimes, intended to provide migrating juvenile salmon and steelhead a relatively safe method of passage through dams, are dictated by NOAA Fisheries' 2000 Federal Columbia River Power System biological opinion.

Spill is also considered to be perhaps the most expensive fish mitigation tool. The Council staff this summer estimated that spill during July and August on average costs the Bonneville Power Administration $68 million in foregone revenues because the spilled water does not generate electricity. BPA estimated that this summer's spill was even costlier, $100 million because of the strong prices on wholesale markets where surplus energy could have been sold.

Fish and Wildlife director Doug Marker told the Council this week that it needs to make a recommendation on a spill research plan during its November meeting in order to allow entry into competition for 2004 research dollars. The summer spill evaluation is just one of several BiOp manipulations suggested in the Council's April amendment to the "mainstem" portion of its fish and wildlife program.

An ad hoc "spill subcommittee" has been meeting weekly to discuss options and develop options for consideration. Now those involved are working to evaluate the potential technical feasibility of implementing those regimes, the potential biological consequences, how much such tests would cost and how they would be funded. The participants include representatives of the Council and staff, the federal action agencies (the Corps of Engineers, BPA and Bureau of Reclamation), Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission staff, NOAA Fisheries, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state fishery agencies.

The options being considered are still in draft form and in need of that scrutiny as to their feasibility, but conceptually they propose:

Any Council recommendation that emerges from the process would likely be immersed in a federal selection process. Most of mainstem research work is done through the Corps of Engineers Anadromous Fish Evaluation Program. It directs about $25 million to $30 million in research funding each year, according to the Corps' Witt Anderson. Now is the time when funding decisions are made.

"We really need to lay out what we're going to accomplish in the next field season" by November, Anderson said. That allows time to order needed equipment, such as PIT tags, fine-tune study design and conduct reviews of those designs before implementation.

He told the Council that existing spill research at those four facilities are focused on establishing a survival baseline for BiOp, and are not intended to address cost-effectiveness issues. The studies are also more project-specific, instead of evaluating the cumulative spill survival through the system. None of the existing spill studies stretch into the late summer, he said. That late summer spill was at issue this year when an effort led by the state of Montana aimed to curtail spill in August. Proponents said that late season spill had little benefit because the vast majority of fish migrants had already passed through the system.

BPA's Greg Delwiche noted that the heads of his agency, NOAA Fisheries and the Corps in August turned back requests to eliminate August spill but in doing so said they believe changes needed to be made that would allow alternatives to be implemented that could bring the same biological benefit and reduced cost. That could ultimately be a reduced spill alternative, or a reduced spill alternative with offsetting mitigation, he said.

NOAA's John Palensky said that "this issue is very high on the radar of Bob Lohn, our regional administrator." But he issued a caution.

"We are somewhat skeptical that we will be able to develop a research plan that will give us the kind of definitive result we would like to see," Palensky said of an attempt to determine the survival benefits gained or lost for the fall chinook from incremental changes in spill. Given the relative scarcity of juvenile Snake River fall chinook that late in the season, it may also be hard to get statistically valid research results.

The research effort would need to "go a lot of years and cost a lot of money to get needed results," Palensky said. "We think there may be better uses of the human resources and money."

The Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority's executive director, Rod Sando, said that the spill subcommittee process was going well, and with considerable participation. But he agreed that the scientific validation that the Council seeks will come at great cost.

"Biological management cannot be done with the precision you want," Sando said.

Related Sites:

Barry Espenson
Panel Discusses Options, Timing on Spill Study Alternatives
Columbia Basin Bulletin, October 17, 2003

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