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Work Groups Mull Methods to Evaluate Spill Changes

by Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin - November 7, 2003

An ad hoc work group of the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority is considering study designs to evaluate summer spill operations.

The study will evaluate the gamut of operations ranging from those outlined in the NOAA Fisheries biological opinion to providing more or less spill.

The BiOp assumes that spill provides the highest passage survival for juveniles through the federal hydroelectric system, but some believe that spill can be reduced and the lower survival of migrants can be compensated with offset measures, such as predator control or changes in operations at dams.

To test this idea, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's Mainstem Amendments called for the evaluation of summer spill, concentrating on 2004 operations, in order to seek a way to spill water at dams more cost-effectively, including finding offset measures that would allow spill reductions.

"The mainstem rule asked is there a more cost-effective way to apply spill and help fall chinook get out of the system?" said Jim Litchfield, representing Montana at IT. "We're doing some combination of spill and transport now. Is there a better way to get the job done?"

At this point, the work group has identified four spill options and asked a separate science subgroup, chaired by Russ Keifer of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, to determine how to evaluate each of the options, or whether the options are even feasible. Another subgroup is developing a list of potential offsets that would allow reductions in spill while achieving or improving the level of survival for juvenile migrants through dams.

"The details of the four options are yet to be determined," said Jim Ruff of NOAA Fisheries at the Implementation Team meeting this week. He indicated the process is just getting started. "The science team is trying to figure out how to evaluate each of the options, including ways to combine the options, but that hasn't been figured out yet."

According to Ruff, the options are:

  1. Status quo. This is the BiOp spill program considered project by project.

  2. Spill reduction. This includes two sub-options.
    1. Continue current project by project evaluations in 2004 and continue those studies through the third week of July, then reduce spill by some amount through the BiOp planning date, which is Aug. 31.

    2. Overall reduction. Lower spill volumes with or without an evaluation.
  3. Implement the BiOp spill program and evaluate it to get a baseline juvenile survival level for summer migrants, as well as evaluate offset measures for reduced spill.

  4. Increase spill over BiOp levels. This option includes a combination of transportation and spill at collector dams. Normally spill at collector dams ceases during the summer while a high percentage of juveniles migrants are collected and barged downstream. With this option, more fish would be left in the river.
Tony Nigro of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and a member of the CBFWA work group said there are a number of questions to be asked when developing the study design for these options. What are the experimental designs? What are the performance measures, such as system survival? What resources would be needed? What is the feasibility of implementing the experimental design?

"This is a fairly Herculean task," he said. "The bottom line is what is the consequence in terms of survival and how do you measure each of the options. If you choose one of the options, what is the response of the fish?"

Steve Haeseker of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the evaluation designs are confusing policy with science and that evaluations should be conducted before making changes in the BiOp spill program, not at the same time.

"We're here because of Council and other outside pressures," said Jim Athearn of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "Policy is mixed with science. Scientists are asked to evaluate the options, not worry about how it's going to come out."

"Basically there are huge unknowns (in the current spill program) and we've been making operational changes in the face of those unknowns," Litchfield said. "The question is not are we getting benefits, but what is the cost of those benefits? If we make the changes, what should we do to identify the impacts of those changes?"

Two of the options -- the second and third -- require evaluations of offsets to the spill program that could potentially be used to enhance survival of migrants when spill is reduced, according to John Palensky of NOAA Fisheries. A separate work group he sits on this week developed a set of principles to be used when considering potential offset measures. Those measures should:

  1. be designed to provide equal or greater survival than BiOp spill requirements

  2. be temporally consistent. In other words, they should provide survival benefits to the brood years affected by changes to spill.

  3. capture the diversity of the affected stocks. "If whacking the end of a run, do something that enhances that part of the run," Palensky said.

  4. address listed or unlisted stocks affected.

  5. be over and above measures contemplated in the BiOp.

  6. be implementable or committed to in writing in the year spill is reduced.

  7. be funded over and above current fish and wildlife spending caps.
Some IT members believe that some measures now contained in the BiOp or the All-H paper should be eligible as offsets for spill. However, Palensky said that, while each measure would likely be considered individually, few measures already contemplated in the BiOp or All-H document would qualify. An example would be the reducing funding for the pikeminnow predator reduction program operated by the Bonneville Power Administration. With the reduced funding, it remains to be seen if BPA maintains the benefit, he said. If they bring it back up to just the BiOp level, that would not qualify as an offset measure, Palensky said.

Other examples of offset measures are increases in predator control of terns, cormorants, walleye, smallmouth bass and marine mammals, and changes in operations, such as flow augmentation, or system configuration measures, such as removable spillway weirs. In addition, the offset workgroup is considering commercial harvest reductions, increased law enforcement, habitat improvements and supplementation measures.

Palensky said the work group's next step is to complete a matrix that identifies each offset measure and lists each measure's consistency with the principles.

"The BiOp is an aggressive non-breach strategy and already includes offsite mitigation," said Dave Statler of the Nez Perce Tribes. "That is an experiment in itself. If the region decides to retreat from the agreement and decrease spill, it seems we will need more offsite measures. It looks to me like one step forward and two steps back."

He added that the region doesn't know if it can prevent extinction with the current program. "If the region backs off of the aggressive nature of the mainstem actions, the question is can we compensate for those losses?" Statler said.

Related Sites:
Implementation Team:

Mike O'Bryant
Work Groups Mull Methods to Evaluate Spill Changes
Columbia Basin Bulletin, November 7, 2003

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