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Commentaries and editorials

TMT Considers Changes
in Water Management Plan for 2004

by Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin - September 5, 2003

A general river operating plan used by the Technical Management Team is up for review this month and this year the group is considering a number of controversial changes and updates to that plan.

TMT also is recognizing that some decisions on river operations are made elsewhere and that all details for the 2004 plan won't be available on time.

The Water Management Plan (WMP), required by NOAA Fisheries 2000 biological opinion, guides TMT's process for making in-season decisions on reservoir and dam operations in the Columbia River Basin, including decisions about when to begin and end spring and summer spill. It is also a general guide for river operating agencies

  • the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bonneville Power Administration and the Bureau of Reclamation
  • as they operate the federal Columbia River hydroelectric system throughout the year.

    As a further complicating factor, the strategies outlined in the WMP support both the NOAA Fisheries BiOp and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2000 BiOp. However, Judge James Redden remanded the NOAA Fisheries BiOp in May because it relies improperly on actions that are not "reasonably certain to occur."

    He sent the BiOp back for review, which according to NOAA Fisheries will be completed in May 2004. But the latest WMP covers the federal 2004 fiscal year, which begins October 1. Another new feature is the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's Mainstem Amendments, which some members of TMT believe should be acknowledged in the plan. The Amendments call for further experimentation of flow and spill regimes.

    "The new Water Management Plan should say (in the Introduction) that the BiOp has been remanded and is under review," said Jim Litchfield, representing Montana at TMT. "We need to state that this plan is based on the old BiOp, but that there will be a new one next year and that BiOp will cause changes to this plan."

    The guiding principle of the WPM is to make the next year's plan for operating the hydro system transparent to the public and to tell where operations are going, said Donna Silverberg, facilitator for TMT. The suggestion to say up front that there will be changes with a new BiOp meets both those criteria.

    Litchfield also suggested an acknowledgement of the Council's Mainstem Amendments. "It would be politically astute to recognize that the Council has made some recommendations and we will add the details later," he said.

    "Until they (Mainstem Amendments) are part of the BiOp, we can't add them," said Tony Norris of BOR.

    TMT had outlined at its Aug. 27 meeting topics that still need resolution. Most won't be resolved before Oct. 1 and many are not the responsibility of TMT to resolve. Among the topics are:

    1. Criteria are incomplete for operations of the new Corner Collector at Bonneville Dam, expected to be operational by March 2004. "There is no agreement to operate the facility as a spillway or a sluiceway," said Scott Bettin of BPA. "Although we have this new $55 million facility, we don't have criteria for operations."

      Ron Boyce, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the sluiceway at the dam is being modified to operate as a surface collector and preliminary tests show that it is very effective. He added that the post construction evaluation will be done in 2004 and that the operations instructions will be completed in December by the Fish Passage Operations and Maintenance (FPOM) coordinating team, a Corps technical subgroup

    2. The 2003 study data for the operations of the Removable Spillway Weir at Lower Granite Dam won't be available until November 2003. That research will define the operational recommendations for spill (12 hour versus 24-hour spill) at the dam. The responsibility for this falls on the Study Review Work Group. TMT members are initially planning to include changes resulting from this study in the WMP spring/summer update.

    3. Ice Harbor Dam spill operations became controversial this year when tests of spillway mortality reduced spill operations from 24 hours as suggested by the BiOp to 12 hour night time spill. The research results won't be available until after the WMP is finalized. FPOM will go through the research results later this year.

    4. One of the most controversial topics is criteria for when to begin and end spring and summer spill. TMT debated this topic during the 2003 spill season. Recent debate at TMT about when to end summer spill (BPA asked for spill to end two weeks earlier than the date suggested in the BiOp, saying most juvenile fish had passed the dams and that spill was costing the agency about $1 million per day in lost revenue) was eventually elevated to the Implementation Team for a decision. Without criteria other than the planning date currently in the BiOp, IT chose to spill through August. This week IT debated how to determine trigger dates for beginning and ending spill.

      The Corps, BPA and NOAA Fisheries had issued a statement August 26

    5. after the spill decision by IT
    6. saying that "changes must be implemented before next summer to more clearly allow alternative measures that could accomplish the biological benefit associated with spill at a reduced cost."

      "The focus only on cost-effectiveness is different than meeting the criteria of the BiOp," Boyce said.

      "The objective is to bring in economics when there are marginal benefits for fish," said John Wellschlager of BPA.

    7. The trigger for when to spill at Lower Granite Dam and begin transportation was a controversial topic at TMT this spring. The BiOp sets the trigger when flows in the lower Snake River drop below 85,000 cubic feet per second. Although flows dropped at one point (prior to the spring runoff) to below the 85 kcfs trigger, TMT decided to continue spill.

      This issue is also wrapped up with transportation decisions, said NOAA Fisheries' Paul Wagner, and TMT is the best place to deal with these decisions. Early migrants survive best in river, while later migrants survive best in barges, he said. The transportation trigger is likely to be dealt with in the consultation now going on regarding the BiOp review.

    8. Montana this year requested a summer drafting strategy at Libby Dam that included lower flows out of the dam consistent with the Council's Mainstem Amendments, and higher reservoir levels at the end of summer, even though the Council had not intended to begin the strategy until next year. This is an issue that is likely to be made outside TMT and others, including the Council, are working on it, Litchfield said.

    9. Bonneville Dam flow and spill is being developed by the operating agencies and are to be included in their implementation plan.

    10. Spill for juveniles released from the USFWS Spring Creek Hatchery in Washington is under discussion, according to Dave Wills of the agency. BPA had late in 2002 resisted planning for spill in 2003 due to expected low water and economic conditions at the federal power marketing agency, but ended up providing limited spill for 7.5 million hatchery fish in March.

    11. Another decision that is difficult for TMT every year is when to begin operations for threatened Lower Columbia River chum spawning below Bonneville Dam. The BiOp calls for the operations to begin Nov. 1, but chum are not always present. The BiOp lacks criteria that says how many chum must be present to begin the operations. Wagner said the BiOp says no later than Nov. 1, but it is also predicated on available water. "If the weather continues the way it's going, we will likely be impacted by the Vernita Bar Agreement operations and may have to wait until that is done," said Bettin. The agreement protects unlisted spawning chinook at Hanford Reach downstream from Priest Rapids Dam.
    TMT will likely work through issues it has control over during its September meetings and plans to complete the WMP by Oct. 1.

    Related Sites:
    Technical Management Team:

    Mike O'Bryant
    TMT Considers Changes in Water Management Plan for 2004
    Columbia Basin Bulletin, September 5, 2003

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