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[1] BPA Floats Contingency Plan To Save Its Bacon--And Fish
[2] NMFS' Newest Survival Study Reinforces Earlier Results
[3] Runoff Forecast Continues To Drop
[4] Fish Managers Pan NMFS Transport Studies
[5] Methow Water Users Intend To Sue Feds
[6] Regional NMFS Job Down To Three Candidates
[7] New Study Looks At Impacts Of Hatchery Steelhead

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Operating the federal hydro system to meet BiOp-mandated fish needs this year could carry with it a more than 40 percent chance that BPA's cash reserves would dwindle down to nothing by the end of August, the agency said last week. But a contingency plan that would reduce those fish-saving efforts could cut financial and power risks considerably--to only a seven percent chance of hitting bottom in the agency's pocketbook.

With $600 million in the bank now, the cash could disappear fast if BPA has to go outside the region to cover an expected 4000-MW deficit (compared to 1995-1999 generation), which is likely to put the agency in a major bind as it prepares to deal with the fourth lowest water year on record.

That was the message floated at several forums in Portland last week, including the Power Planning Council's work session and both the Technical Management and Implementation Team meetings of fish and hydro managers. Execs from the nine federal agencies involved in river operations have also been briefed on BPA's proposal.

The latest estimate calls for a 66.4-MAF [million acre feet] water year, about 63 percent of normal, according to the Northwest River Forecast Center's final February forecast. The lowest water year on record was 1977, with around 54 MAF; the highest, 1997, at 159 MAF.

But, there won't be any cheap California power to bail the system out this year. With December power prices more than 10 times higher than the previous four-year annual average, BPA is working diligently to reduce load. But to maintain system reliability, its financial health and still help fish, the agency says hydro operations may have to be altered to reduce risks and maintain an 80 percent chance of meeting its $732 million Treasury payment by the end of the fiscal year.

By NW Fishletter's deadline, the power agency was still working out the projected cost for power purchases, if full BiOp flow and spill measures for fish were implemented this year, and power was available. BPA is expected to have their analysis completed by the end of the week, said BPA Veep Greg Delwiche. He said the cost would likely be over $2 billion, given today's water conditions and power market. Unofficially, others have pegged the number between $2.2 billion and $2.8 billion, a figure that approaches the annual revenue for the agency.

BPA's contingency proposal is based on a slightly more optimistic water forecast than what agency managers were handed last week. It calls for operating the system to maintain 130 kcfs flows at Bonneville Dam and a tailwater elevation of 11.7 feet, which for the next two months would keep operations within BiOp parameters for chum salmon.

However, not all reservoirs are expected to be refilled by June 30, which would curtail quite considerably any spring or summer spill programs. The BPA proposal would save as much water as possible for summer flows and spills, but plans would be adjusted as the season progressed.

Such was the message Delwiche delivered to the Power Planning Council on Feb. 7, when he stressed the agency's current effort to protect chum redds. BPA spokesperson Therese Lamb told IT members the same story the next day.

Lamb said the combination of reduced spill and no refill of "a couple of reservoirs I won't mention" could give the agency a 37 percent probability of having cash reserves of less than $500 million to $800 million by September.

Projected flows at McNary Dam would be in the 150-160 kcfs range for spring, considerably below BiOp target levels of 220 kcfs. By the end of August, flows would be about 125 kcfs, about 75 kcfs below summer target flow levels. Dick Nason of Chelan PUD said his own utility estimates runoff will be even lower than that.

IT members vowed to meet again this week to begin the task of coping with reservoirs that probably won't be nearly full once the snow has melted, gathering to discuss their priorities for refill. At this point, NMFS' Jim Ruff said his agency wants Dworshak at the top of the list to aid fall chinook migrating through the Snake River. But as the Corps' Cindy Henriksen put it, "everybody's reservoir is a priority."

Numbers floated at the Council session suggested that Libby may be 15 feet below full by June 30, Hungry Horse 10 feet below, Grand Coulee five feet from full and Dworshak 10 feet from being topped off.

Henriksen told IT members there will be "no spring flow augmentation from any headwater project." But she said managers could put a little flexibility into the system by keeping reservoirs from being "choc-o-block full."

And come July, there probably won't be any more water available from Montana to aid mainstem flows, either. Montana IT rep Jim Litchfield said the state's reservoirs are being drained too fast now.

BPA's Dan Daley said one alternative to the poor flow situation would be to barge fish from McNary in the spring, but other IT members were cool to the idea. Ruff said NMFS isn't geared up to conduct any research at McNary on barging, but that the agency's Science Center in Seattle is looking into the possibility. The results of a single study from the early 1980s were ambiguous.

For the time being, Henriksen said, technical managers don't even need to meet, since the system is running at minimum flows. There are no choices to make, she said, because there is no flexibility in the system.

BPA's Lamb said that managers will not only have to set priorities for refill, but that "spill needs to be discussed--the amount and duration."

Idaho's Jim Yost said his state would participate in such discussions, but is not "overly enthusiastic" about the region's thirst for water. "As for a fish flow/survival relationship--I don't believe it," he said.

For the longer term, BPA announced it and other action agencies [COE and BuRec] are beginning a process to prioritize the 199 fish strategies NMFS has counted on to avoid jeopardy in the new BiOp--including an assessment of both their biological and economic feasibility.

"Some of those RPAs [Reasonable Prudent Alternatives] may or may not be included," said Daley, who added that an interim plan focusing on the one- and five-year timelines should be ready by early April. He said the action agencies would be working with NMFS and USF&WS on its development.

Daley added that it is important that the science in the implementation plan be integrated with NMFS research results from the fish agency's Seattle Science Center, so it is "in tune" with the science in the BiOp as much as possible. Action agencies have listed a whole range of key assumptions and uncertainties used in the BiOp's analyses that they want to discuss with the region to aid development of an independent science review that would help guide the implementation effort.

Some of these uncertainties include: extinction risks; hatchery effectiveness; sensitivity to historic time period; both juvenile and adult survivals; differential delayed mortality for transported fish, including timing to estuary; extra mortality of both in-river and transported fish; ocean and climate factors, and effects of habitat and hatchery actions.

Daley also emphasized that the ESA plan be melded with the Council's fish and wildlife program, where the BiOp's offsite mitigation actions will be put together.

Idaho's Yost said his state has real problems with the offsite mitigation part of the BiOp. With more emphasis on ESA issues, his state wants more input into the Council process that prioritizes and implements improvements. Daley said Washington state has expressed similar concerns. -Bill Rudolph


Northwest Power Planning Council members heard both good and bad news at last week's work session in Portland. First came a report from NMFS scientist Bill Muir, who told the Council that his agency's latest research into juvenile fish survival reinforces earlier results: namely, that any relationship between increased spring chinook survivals and higher flows is weak and inconsistent.

For the year 2000, Muir said project survival (one dam, one reservoir) for inriver migrants averaged 93 percent for Snake River spring chinook and 91 percent for steelhead. Muir also pointed out that most of the fish in the Snake--both spring and summer migrants--are barged.

But inriver summer/fall migrants are another story, according to NMFS statistician Steve Smith. He told the Council there are "correlations" between flow and survival of the falls, but that such correlations do not suggest patterns. He also pointed out that the NMFS research is not a study to measure the effects of flow augmentation.

With the Snake very clear and flowing more slowly than normal last summer, Smith said, fish survival was highly correlated with flow, temperature, turbidity and release date. But sorting out the variables will require manipulative experiments. He noted that fall chinook survival in cooler water last year was lower than previous years. The data suggest there is a threshold at about 17-18 ºC at which fish survivals go way down, he said.

Idaho Council member Mike Field asked the scientists if more fish should be barged in the spring if flows go below 50 kcfs at Lower Granite. Muir said it is his "personal opinion" that it would do some good because when flows are that low, the river "becomes a lake."

Field also wanted to know if transport studies will continue this year. He was concerned that some fish managers may be pushing to can this year's study if spill is discontinued. Muir said NMFS anticipates putting some fish back in the river to continue the work.

Muir also reported that hatchery fish last year showed their highest survival rate since studies began. From 1993-2000, survival from Idaho hatcheries to Lower Granite has averaged 60 percent. He said percentages have improved from some of the hatcheries furthest away, like Sawtooth, and attributed the boost to better rearing conditions.

The bad news came when the Council heard updates on current conditions and the outlook for a poor water year. That caused Rob Walton of the Public Power Council to suggest that, in light of the weak and inconsistent relationship between flow and fish survival, "maybe if you want to get radical, you could put them all in the barges, and save them all."

With so much focus on tough times ahead, it seemed more than a little surreal for the Council to approve over $350,000 to support a joint OR/WA effort to study ways to catch more hatchery salmon while being able to release wild, ESA-listed fish. The money will pay for tangle nets and a monitoring effort this spring in the lower Columbia, where a number of commercial fishermen have volunteered to take part, hoping to capitalize on part of the record run expected to show up in two months. The Council overrode a recommendation by the independent science panel, whose members did not give it a high priority. -B. R.


There was no good news in the latest water supply forecast. With runoff at The Dalles on the Columbia River now predicted to drop to 66.4 million acre-feet, or just 63 percent of average, the Northwest River Forecast Center is warning that conditions are approaching the 1976-77 drought year. Runoff that year barely topped 53 MAF, setting the record at 51 percent of average.

Above Grand Coulee, this year's runoff is now pegged at 41.2 MAF, or 65 percent of average. Last year, Coulee runoff totaled 61.1 MAF. At Lower Granite, on the Snake River, runoff is set at 18.8 MAF, or 63 percent of average. Lower Granite last year showed a total runoff of 24.6 MAF.

Even as the forecast was released, the NWRFC warned that conditions "continue to decline," strongly hinting that next month's forecast could drop even more.
Low reservoir behind Mossy Rock Dam
on the Cowlitz River

January's poor showing in rainfall and snow forced the low forecast. Above The Dalles, rainfall averaged less than 40 percent of normal during the month. For the October through January water year, rainfall in that region now totals just 60 percent of average. Above Grand Coulee, January's rain measured 36 percent of average, giving a water year total of 56 percent. Ice Harbor on the Snake River saw 44 percent of normal rainfall during the month, bringing the water year total to 76 percent. On the Upper Snake River, January precipitation totaled just 44 percent of average, bringing the total water year there to 79 percent.

National Weather Service charts of rainfall patterns since October show a striking similarity to 1977, with Grand Coulee nearly mimicking that drought year.

Snowpack in the basin also continues to drop, reaching a low of 45 percent of average in the Upper Columbia. Grand Coulee set a new record low, at 51 percent of normal, matched closely by British Columbia at 55 percent and Montana at 50 percent. The National Water and Climate Center reported that snowpack in the Snake River headwaters dropped to 57 percent of average, down from last month's 79 percent. The snowpack index above The Dalles is now set at 52 percent of normal.

Overall, half of the Columbia is at or below 50 percent of average snowpack and no basin exceeds 70 percent. Accumulated snowpack is only 35 percent of a normal year's peak amount. The only year with a worse showing was 1977, which showed 27 percent. Snow/water equivalents are also dropping, with Coulee at 38 percent SWE, considerably below the average of 63 percent. Ice Harbor's SWE is 39 percent, also below the 62 percent average. The Dalles posts a similar showing, with the SWE set at 38 percent, compared to the normal figure of 62 percent.

As expected, streamflows also show significant drops. The NWRFC said streamflows in much of the basin are nearing the lowest on record, although they remain above those posted in the 1977 drought year. With less than two months remaining in the snow accumulation season, the Forecast Center gives the region a less than 2 percent chance of reaching normal streamflows. -Lynn Francisco


Unless the hydro system can provide maximum spill for spring migrants, some Columbia Basin fish managers say NMFS should not conduct this year's juvenile fish study designed to measure transport/inriver fish survival. That recommendation also holds for a proposed study on transport survivals of fall chinook when spill at dams does not normally occur. Last year, fish managers and the Nez Perce Tribe, in particular, managed to quash a transport study for fall chinook, questioning first the lack of spill and second the number of fish available for the study.

But the fish managers seem at odds with the new hydro BiOp and their own governors. The BiOp calls for continuing transport studies to reduce critical uncertainties about flows, survival and questions of delayed mortality to fish from both barging and passage through the system. The four Northwest governors also called for ongoing research, but suggested that barging be used as a transitional strategy until the research determines whether the number of listed fish would increase "from migration in an improved river environment."

The Feb. 1 letter to NMFS--from the joint staff of CRITFC, USFWS, ODFW, IDFW and WDFW--spelled out the fish managers' concerns, The letter said the feds' study design was flawed and had the potential for causing significant delayed mortality of listed fish. The managers said NMFS' own findings show smolts PIT-tagged above Lower Granite Dam have higher survivals than fish tagged at the dam--where they would be tagged this year, according to the study. The SAR's [Smolt-to-Adult Returns] for the fish tagged at the dam are about 75 percent that of fish tagged above it, leading to a known negative bias, the fish managers said.

They are concerned that projected low flows means a BiOp-mandated max transport strategy will be implemented. Part of that strategy calls for ending spill at collector dams to trap more fish for barging downstream. The fish managers say that without spill, the "true" control fish for the study will be lost. They consider only fish that are not detected at dams to be untainted from passage through bypass systems. PIT-tagged fish aren't detected if they pass through either turbines or spillways. The fish managers also feel smolt-to-adult survivals will not be high enough over the next five years to make the study statistically valid.

"Substantial numbers of PIT-tagged smolts have been available beginning in migratory year 1989, yet transport SARs have never reached 2.1 percent for either species. While we are all hopeful that the promising chinook jack returns from the 1999 outmigration will translate into chinook SARs greater than 2.1 percent for this group," the fish managers said, "it is not realistic to expect these survival levels to be reached for the next five years, based on the data from the last 10 years."

But it's unlikely that the study will be halted, although it may take a meeting of regional federal execs to make sure it continues. The issue may get a public airing at next week's meeting of the Power Planning Council. Council members may not be too excited about the managers' beef, however. "We shouldn't be afraid of the data collection," said Idaho member Mike Field. " It's very important to understand the whole equation, and especially important to find out what happens to fish in a low flow year." -Bill Rudolph


Water users in northeast Washington's Methow Valley have notified federal agencies they intend to sue over long-simmering water issues related to ESA and fish matters. They say they are giving federal agencies a chance to correct legal defects in biological opinions issued to protect endangered fish.

Okanogan County, the Early Winters Ditch Co. and two farmers took the initiative after two years of negotiations led to BiOp-mandated target flows for fish that the plaintiffs say are biologically unjustified and a violation of state water rights.

They say that in some cases, such as the BiOp developed for the Skyline Irrigation Ditch, federal authorities would end all irrigation diversions in the Chewuch River for five out of every 10 years--"whenever the river does not achieve pre-civilization conditions."

The letter also states that NMFS and the USWFS are violating section 7 of the ESA for several reasons. In their view, the feds have applied "improper recovery or properly functioning condition standards in lieu of the jeopardy and critical habitat standards set forth in the ESA," and that the biological opinions impose RPAs [reasonable, prudent alternatives] that "are not economically feasible and are therefore unreasonable."

The Feb. 5 letter states that "chaotic and uncertain legal effects" of the federal enforcement of target flows interferes with the county's ability to plan for land use and fulfill normal regulatory functions mandated under state law. It also points out that enforcement of target flows could hurt farmers, who might sell land to developers and stimulate unplanned real estate development, since "...even a small fraction of water resources shifted from traditional irrigation to domestic use can stimulate land development and population growth."

Dick Ewing, volunteer lead for the Methow's watershed planning unit, told NW Fishletter last month that the county wanted to reserve the right to sue the agencies if they thought target flows were set too high. Ewing said the agencies wanted the county to give up the right to sue. "If we litigate on target flows, they would walk."

NMFS' Bob Turner called Ewing's allegation "pure hogwash." He told NW Fishletter that neither the state nor the feds have ever taken the position that the county should give up their right to sue. He said his agency was considering language in the proposed agreement with the county that explicitly reserved their right to sue.

But according to a story in the Methow Valley News, Wenatchee attorney Peter Fraley, who represented the Skyline Ditch Co, reportedly said negotiations with agencies would end if his client participated in the notice of intent.

Turner produced an e-mail from NMFS' Michael Grady, who said Fraley had been told "that legal suits could hinder the frankness of the discussion to develop creative options for Skyline and the other ditches on the Chewuch [River]," but that NMFS has not said it "is urging them to delay or re-think any legal remedies on target flows."

"We're trying to keep the MOA on track," Turner told NW Fishletter. He said his agency has been ready to sign already once or twice, but concerns expressed by the watershed plannig unit or county has kept the agreement from being completed. The MOA would spell out the conditions for creating a Habitat Conservation Plan to satisfy ESA, fish and water issues.

Upriver, Downriver

Meanwhile, downriver water fights have continued in a big way.

Columbia/Snake irrigators are still waiting to hear from the Washington Department of Ecology over a lawsuit the water users filed last October to free up more water from McNary and John Day pools. The state said it wants to engage the irrigators in talks, but nothing meaningful has transpired so far, according to consultant Darryll Olsen. A major bone of contention is the irrigators' complaint that the state's support of the NMFS "no net water loss policy" is not based on science and violates state water rights.

But Washington Gov. Gary Locke has water issues on his radar screen and made a special point in his inaugural address about his intent to resolve them. Locke has appointed lawyer Jim Waldo to oversee a process that will try and sort out the contentious world of conflicting water needs among fish advocates, farmers and municipalities. It's expected to take 18 months to complete, but irrigation association leaders have said they'll forego Locke's new forum and stick with the lawsuit.-B. R.


Sources say that applications for the job of NMFS Northwest Regional Administrator have been winnowed down to three candidates. They include Cassie Phillips, currently working for Weyerhaeuser Timber; Bob Lohn of the NWPPC, and Washington state politico Dan McDonald, who recently lost a bid for Congress from Washington's 1st District.

McDonald is still a Republican state senator, where he has served for many years, although he stepped down as majority leader to run in the election.

Lohn heads up the Power Planning Council's Fish and Wildlife Division. Before that, he ran BPA's F&W division and served as NWPPC's counsel.

Phillips played a major role in the 15-month-long series of negotiations involving Washington state, federal agencies, timber companies, tribes and environmental groups, which culminated in the state's Forest and Fish agreement. The agreement spells out timber and water management strategies that satisfy NMFS' ESA fish protection measures on 60 million acres of private forest land over the next 50 years. -B. R.


A study that looks at the impacts of hatchery steelhead on wild fish in coastal rivers has been released by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Its purpose is to provide a scientific basis for using native broodstock in hatchery programs aimed at subsidizing the sport harvest.

The agency's overriding concern is to prevent the serious depletion of indigenous species under state law and to fully implement the Oregon coastal salmon recovery plan. But ODFW must make sure that its hatchery program is consistent with administrative law, including the Oregon Wild Fish Management Policy.

The 1988-1996 study, called Reducing The Impacts Of Hatchery Steelhead Programs, looked at designation of wild steelhead populations, hatchery straying, spawning overlap between hatchery and wild spawners, survival and straying of hatchery stocks, the survival and homing value of acclimation ponds, and sterilization to reduce interbreeding on the spawning grounds.

"The transfer of steelhead stocks among basins is one hatchery practice that could reduce survival of wild fish," the authors note, "because of interbreeding between locally adapted native populations and transported stocks."

The study found that in general, each of the major river basins in Oregon and some subbasins represent separate stocks of steelhead. The transfer or straying of stocks from one basin to another should be controlled to minimize genetic risk to wild populations.

"Because fish stocks removed from their natural habitat change genetically when reared in hatcheries," the authors say, "the only way to conserve genetic resources of steelhead…is by maintaining wild stocks."

Though straying is a natural behavior that aids the species to colonize new habitats, the straying of hatchery fish is a concern to fish managers because of the potential negative effect on wild populations and its potential effect on harvest goals for rivers where the fish were released but did not return.

The authors note that hatchery steelhead composed 28 percent of the catch in some streams where no hatchery fish were released. The study documented strays in Oregon coastal rivers in a range from 4 percent to 43 percent, and southwest Oregon rivers were getting substantial strays from California hatchery programs. Seventy percent of the strays in the Alsea River were from Alsea hatchery steelhead released into the Siuslaw River.

The study looked at the overlap of hatchery and wild spawners, and the authors found that "in all basins there was considerable overlap in spawn timing between hatchery and wild steelhead, although wild fish tended to spawn later and over a longer time period than hatchery fish.

Since the state's Wild Fish Management Policy requires that only 10 percent or less of spawners be non-native fish, the spawning overlap between hatchery and wild fish is a major concern. In some streams, the hatchery fish made up 80 percent of the natural spawners.

Using local broodstock in hatchery programs holds promise because these fish are more likely to be best suited for survival in the natural stream and they pose less genetic risk to the wild, native fish. Siuslaw River steelhead used as local broodstock did not stray as much as the Alsea steelhead that were released in the Siuslaw.

The native broodstock also contributed more to the fishery in two of three years, compared to the Alsea hatchery steelhead. The native Siuslaw steelhead adults migrated later in the winter than the Alsea hatchery, fish which resulted in moving the sport fishery into March. The higher stray rates of the non-native Alsea Hatchery stock suggest that homing is a heritable trait which is consistent with the findings of other research results.

The use of acclimation ponds for the release of hatchery fish has gained importance but little evaluation has been done. The ponds are believed to increase survival from juvenile to adult and to improve homing. However, the authors found "no difference in survival, in homing… or in straying" when comparing direct releases into streams and the use of acclimation ponds. They did find that steelhead into a tributary increased the return of the hatchery fish to that tributary, "demonstrating that a tributary release strategy can be used to contain hatchery spawning escapement," and reduce hatchery and wild fish interbreeding in the larger river basin.

Recycled Fish Run Out Of Gas

One way to increase the angler catch of hatchery fish is to recycle the adults by capturing them in upriver areas and giving them a truck ride back down river to run through the sport fishery again. The ODFW study examined this strategy and found that an "average of only 44 percent could be accounted for in traps and in the sport fishery," which suggests that most either strayed or perished.

The study also noted that homing accuracy for first time recycles was high, but homing fidelity declined with additional trips down river. This would suggest only a modest benefit to the sport fishery, but a potentially large impact on wild steelhead from straying hatchery fish.

ODFW has embraced sterilization of hatchery fish as a way to reduce spawning interaction between wild and hatchery fish, while still providing hatchery fish for the sport harvest. But the authors found that sterilized fish returned at an older age than their hatchery brothers and sisters, but in such small numbers that they provided no benefit to the sport fishery.

They also found that returning males had developed gonads and were likely sexually active. "Incompletely sterilized males may compete with fertile males on the spawning grounds, but would not spawn successfully," the authors found, concluding that sterilization was not an option for reducing wild/hatchery interactions. -Bill Bakke

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