the film
Economic and dam related articles

National Research Council Weighs in on New Water Withdrawals

by Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter, April 2, 2004

A National Research Council committee has released its long-awaited report on Columbia River water issues, saying that increased withdrawals would add more risks to migrating salmon already stressed out during low water years.

Though they admitted they didn't attempt to quantify the risks because of budgetary and time constraints, the committee said any new permits granted for water withdrawals should include conditions that would allow for them to be discontinued during "critical periods."

Commissioned by the Washington State Department of Ecology, the NRC review said "cumulative" effects of water withdrawals during low-flow periods could cross important temperature and flow thresholds with "resulting deleterious effects on salmon," adding to risky trends already facing fish such as future climate warming, potential water withdrawals from other parts of the Columbia, degraded water policy, and periodically poor ocean conditions.

The panel said it couldn't clearly establish the relative importance of various environmental variables on smolt survival, but "when river flows become critically low or water temperatures excessively high, however, pronounced changes in salmon migratory behavior and lower survival rates are expected."

Irrigators' spokesman Darryll Olsen, representing the Columbia-Snake Irrigators Association, took issue with the qualitative nature of the findings.

But committee chair Ernest Smerton, an emeritus engineering professor from the University of Arizona, countered Olsen's remarks at a Mar. 31 press conference. "Any individual withdrawal is not perhaps critical," Smerton said, "but when you accumulate withdrawals during these critical times, then it is judged to be critical. The issue of whether individual withdrawals from the permits is a sizable, a major percentage of the flow is not really the issue. It's the fact that as salmon approach a critical situation in terms of their survivability, the individual withdrawals, while individually may not seem to amount to any great issue collectively, they can be very adverse."

Smerton said the panel did not measure any mortality rates to salmon from added withdrawals, which would increase the from 16.6 percent to as high as 21 percent of the Columbia's minimum flow... "and that would in our judgment, adversely affect the salmon survival."

That 21 percent includes all potential future withdrawals in the state, which could add up to another 1.6 million-acre feet, according to DOE estimates, which includes another 220,000 acre-feet to meet future demand of the Columbia River Project that already takes 2.5 million-acre feet out of the Columbia above Grand Coulee to irrigate nearly 600,000 acres of eastern Washington farmland.

Olsen said later that the 90 mainstem permits between Wells and John Day dams that have been the focus of recent litigation add up to about 300,000 acre-feet of water annually. He said that would reduce July flows in the mainstem by about 1 kcfs, which amounts to less than one-one-hundredth of the daily net flow fluctuation at McNary Dam during the middle of the drought in July 2001.

The Limits of Science
NRC staffer Jeffrey Jacobs said the fisheries experts on the panel felt that quantifying the effects was beyond the scope of the resources of the committee. In fact, Jacobs said it was probably beyond the ability of science to come up with a precise answer. Noting that undammed rivers such as Canada's Fraser have shown a trend for increasing temperatures, the committee said that suggested increases in the Columbia may not entirely be a result of dams and reservoirs, but could be also affected by air temperatures of a changing climate.

The committee suggested that a forum be convened that included the state of Washington and other basin jurisdictions to document and discuss potential water withdrawals. They said the Northwest Power and Conservation Council could serve that purpose, integrating discussions of water rights permit into its responsibilities for resource management.

Irrigators' spokesman Olsen said it was unlikely that such a forum would be supported by water users since water permits are, above all, rights granted by each individual state. He said any forum that had the potential to dilute those rights wouldn't get much support from the agricultural sector. Besides, he said the Northwest Power Act, which created the council, specifically forbade it to get into water rights issues.

The NRC panel also suggested that streamlined water management could relieve some of the strain on new water withdrawals from the Columbia, including transfers, water banks or even construction of new storage and water conveyance facilities.

Environmental groups characterized the report as a big win for fish. "We are delighted that this distinguished panel of scientists has clearly stated that the Columbia River is tapped out during the critical summer months, something we have believed to be true for some time," said Karen Allston of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy. "This report shows that pumping more water out of the Columbia during critical times of the year should not be allowed, and that we need to use Columbia River water more efficiently in order to meet the needs of communities while protecting this invaluable natural asset."

But Olsen said efficiencies in water delivery were not addressed in the report, nor expected improvements in the next 20 years, which he said "make it likely that even with more water taken out of the Columbia, there will be more water in the river than now."

"Over the next month," said DOE director Linda Hoffman, "we'll be reading and digesting the panel's advice to the state, and reaching out to get others' advice on how to proceed. This study, along with the economic analysis we received from the University of Washington in January, provides important information to use as we draft a proposal for managing Columbia River water. We remain committed to developing and implementing a scientifically based water management program that provides for multiple needs into the future." Hoffman said more concrete findings should be ready to share with the region by the end of April.

The thirteen-member committee included several representatives from the Northwest, including Richard Adams from Oregon State University, Stuart McKenzie USGS (retired) and consultants Don Chapman and Al Giorgi.

Bill Rudolph
National Research Council Weighs in on New Water Withdrawals
NW Fishletter, April 2, 2004

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation