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Power Planning Council Wrestles with Questions Over Mainstem Flow Policy

by Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter, May 17, 2002

Members of the Northwest Power Planning Council are still trying to figure out how to handle river operations in their new fish and wildlife program. Specifically, they are trying to reconcile the NMFS-mandated flow augmentation program, which the federal agency readily admits it can't back up after seven years of scientific study--a point consultant Al Giorgi recently re-iterated to the Council in a February report.

The flow augmentation issue was raised at the NWPPC meeting this week in Whitefish, Montana. During a confab with staffers over the latest draft on the mainstem amendments, Washington member Tom Karier brought up the issue when he reminded the group that Giorgi's report said NMFS had found little evidence of a flow/survival relationship across the years for juvenile salmon migrating through the hydro system.

Oregon member Erich Bloch thought it was "premature" to take a position on the matter. He said reliance on the report "overlooks" comments from the region's fish and wildlife managers. He said the weight of opinion favors flow augmentation. "If we go down this road, we're opening the BiOp," Bloch said.

Karier said he was looking for evidence to counter Giorgi's findings, but seemed frustrated that there didn't seem to be much scientific support for augmenting flows. The report, which reviewed the state of the science on mainstem issues, was commissioned by the Council itself. Now it seems the Giorgi report will be scrutinized by the panel of independent scientists who judge such scientific matters for NMFS and the Council.

Staffer John Shurts pointed out that many parts of the new BiOp need vigorous evaluation, but Bloch said he would not support language that called for an evaluation of flow augmentation.

Karier said other elements of new flow operations need review as well, including investigation into new flood control operations. "The Corps needs to study downstream impacts," Karier said.

Doug Marker, the head of the Council's F&W staff, said the document should also deal with hydro operations in low water years.

The Council is scheduled to vote on the mainstem amendments at its next meeting in June and then ask for public comment. Some, like irrigators' groups, have asked for wholesale changes to flow augmentation policy, citing NMFS' own science which can't prove that flow offers survival benefits to fish, especially in spring.

"The Council has had over five years to review the current Columbia River flow targets," said consultant Darryll Olsen, "and most Council members are no doubt aware of the flow targets' substantial hydrologic, biological, and economic flaws. Inaction now by the Council to correct water mismanagement will haunt the regional economy for years to come--much like the WPPSS debacle 20 years ago--and leave the Council appearing inept and irresponsible."

On the other hand, lower basin tribes have asked for operations that mimic a more natural hydrograph; they call for augmenting flows with more water from Canadian storage reservoirs.

The flow/survival question may get the royal treatment by the state of Washington, which is ready to pony up $285,000 for a National Research Council review of salmon and water issues. "Using these data and findings," the state says in a draft letter to the NRC, "the NRC committee will assess the range of risks to salmonids at critical stages in their life cycles resulting from additional water withdrawals from the Columbia River in the context of historical and present hydrological conditions." The language is being shopped about agencies and some stakeholders. It's expected to be finalized by June.

The draft calls for an interim report to be expected in nine months, with the final report to be completed nine months later. The review is part of a state Department of Ecology initiative to reform Columbia River water programs, which was largely unfunded by the state legislature last year, but money has been delegated for the review out of DOE funds, said agency spokesman Gerry O'Keefe, who expected an initial report about a year from now if all goes as planned.

Bill Rudolph
Power Planning Council Wrestles with Questions Over Mainstem Flow Policy
NW Fishletter, May 17, 2002

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