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BPA Unsure ‘When, or If’
Summer Spill Reduction Plan Ready

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - May 14, 2004

Wrestling through numerous legal, biological and social complexities has prolonged the task of assembling a summer hydrosystem spill reduction plan that the region can accept, according the Bonneville Power Administration's top fish and wildlife official.

"I can't tell you when, or if, we will have a proposal" that can be implemented this year, Greg Delwiche told the Northwest Power and Conservation Council Thursday. An agreed-upon approach would have to be developed within the next 10 days to allow implementation this year, according to BPA's acting vice president for Environment, Fish and Wildlife.

The idea is to create a plan under which the amount of water spilled at the Federal Columbia River Power System dams could be reduced without negatively impacting the salmon and steelhead stocks the spill is intended to help. BPA has said that as much as $45 million in additional revenue could be generated because that water is channeled through the powerhouses instead of spill gates. Spill levels are prescribed by NOAA Fisheries as a means of improving survival of fish listed under the Endangered Species Act, such as the Snake River fall chinook.

The net gain, according to a proposal offered March 30, would be from $35 million to $45 million after the estimated cost of so-called mitigation actions or biological "offsets" are subtracted. The agencies involved had expected to take comment and produce a final plan by mid-April but the initiative remains in limbo.

That March 30 proposal and analysis by BPA and the Corps of Engineers, which operates the dams, suggests that a reduction of spill in July and elimination of spill in August would result in a reduced fall chinook salmon return. They calculated that from 2 to 20 fewer threatened Snake River fall chinook would return and that the return of non-listed chinook would decline by as many as 12,000 adult fish on average annually.

That proposal relied on two key offsets to improve survivals. The federal agencies projected that an enhancement of the existing pikeminnow control program and half of the benefits derived from Grant County Public Utility District's additional anti-stranding operations would regain half of the survival benefits lost because of the spill reduction.

But, after discussions with state and tribal fishery managers and others, the plot has thickened. The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission responded to the March 30 biological analysis with analysis of its own that showed a much darker picture. A comparison of the assumptions used in both analyses produced a bit of a compromise.

"The thinking now is that the impacts analysis will be about double" the March 30 projection of impacts from the proposed spill reduction, Delwiche told the Council. The NPCC was in part responsible for launching the proposed investigation of alternatives to NOAA's spill strategies. The NPCC last year in amendments to the mainstem portion of its fish and wildlife program called on the federal agencies to study whether the biological benefits produced by spill could be achieved in a more effective and less costly manner.

The additional impacts mean that additional offsets would also be needed. Those discussions moved the federal agencies farther from the offset goal. Since the pikeminnow program is already listed in NOAA's protection plan -- its 2000 biological opinion on hydrosystem operations -- it might not be considered as an additional survival offset.

"They don't believe the pikeminnow offset should apply" in counteracting a spill reduction's impacts on listed fish, Delwiche said of salmon managers.

Recent discussions have focused on "pursuing extra water from the Snake River" and reaching agreements with commercial fishers on reduced harvest levels, Delwiche said. Either would provide the necessary fish survival benefit to balance the biological equation. But both involve very sensitive social and economic issues.

"There are very serious hurdles" to implementing the increased flow or decreased harvest offsets, Delwiche said.

One approach that would drawdown Idaho's Dworshak an additional 20 feet from Sept. 1-15 (beyond the BiOp-prescribed 80-foot drawdown) in order to provide both flow augmentation and lower temperatures water for juvenile and adult salmon migrants. Area residents are already tense about the reservoir manipulation and its effects on recreational use of the reservoir.

"They don't buy into the biological rationale behind the 80 feet," much less an additional 20 feet, Delwiche. He has traveled twice to Idaho in recent weeks to discuss the proposal with local officials and talks are ongoing with the Nez Perce Tribe, which has opposed the Dworshak offset plan.

"We have offered to fund recreational enhancements in the reservoir," Delwiche said. Those improvements, such as boat ramp extensions, were offered on a one-time basis. The offset package now being considered as part of a three-year spill evaluation envisions the extra drawdown taking place in only one of the three years. In the other two it is hoped a accommodation can be reached with Idaho Power for the release of extra water in July from its Hells Canyon Complex of dams on the Snake River.

Discussions have also taken place with non-tribal mainstem Columbia commercial fishers in which BPA has offered to purchase "selective" fishing gear that could be employed during spring chinook harvests, Delwiche said. Such equipment, such as scow-based fish wheels, would allow marked hatchery fish to be harvested and unmarked, and potentially wild listed, fish to be released.

In exchange for the purchase of the gear, which would allow a greater harvest, BPA would ask the fishers to forego a portion of their allowed impacts on listed fall chinook. Fishers are allowed a limited "impact" on certain fish runs to ensure that the impact on the ESA-listed portions of those runs is controlled. Selective fisheries are harder to implement on fall chinook such a large portion of the run is unlisted and unmarked natural spawners from the Hanford Reach.

Those discussions are halting, however.

"It's not something that's going to come to fruition in a week or two or even this year," Delwiche told the Council.

And time is slipping away. Once a proposal is crafted it would have to be reviewed by NOAA Fisheries. That agency would then produce a "finding." A favorable finding might then prompt a favorable Corps of Engineers "record of decision." The federal agencies also want to allow at least 30 days for U.S. District Court Judge James A. Redden to review any proposal, Delwiche said. Redden last year ruled that the BiOp's jeopardy conclusion was arbitrary and capricious and ordered that the document be reworked. The BiOp's provisions remain in place during the remand.

With the spill reduction portions of the plan set to begin July, that leaves little time to conclude offset discussions, assemble and plan and work it through the various processes.

BPA would sorely like to move the spill reduction plan ahead. Delwiche told the Council that the federal power marketing agency's net revenue projections for 2004 had dropped from a $106 million estimate made at the end of the first quarter to a $41 million estimate at the end of the second March. That reduced forecast is because of estimated drop in BPA's ability to market surplus power generated in the system.

With a relatively snowless and rainless March and April, the Columbia Basin's water runoff forecast has fallen drastically. The January-to-July water supply forecast as measured at the lower Snake River's Lower Granite Dam fell from 92 percent of average in January to only 63 percent of normal in May. That forecast at The Dalles Dam, which includes inflow from the Snake and Columbia systems, fell from 96 percent of normal to 79.5 percent. That means there will be less water to tap for power generation.

bluefish does the math for your convenience: BPA estimates that eliminating summer spill would provide 1.15 - 1.49 million Megawatt*hours (MWh) of "surplus" electricity to sell (typically to California) at an estimated average price of $32/MWh (yielding $37 - $46 million). Prices of course will vary with time of day and electricity market conditions. BPA estimates that elimination of summer spill could potentially provide a 2% electricity rate reduction.

Barry Espenson
BPA Unsure ‘When, or If’ Summer Spill Reduction Plan Ready
Columbia Basin Bulletin, May 14, 2004

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