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[1] BPA Dumps Contingency Plan: Water Year Close To 'Rock Bottom'
[2] Water Forecast Down to 55 Percent
[3] Boondoggle at Bonneville? $2 Million Spill For Hatchery Fish
[4] High Priority Real Estate To Be Funded for Fish Protection
[5] Scientists Knock Regional Planning Tool
[6] Utilities Push Irrigation Buyback Deals
[7] Locke Declares Drought Emergency

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The worsening water picture for Northwest utilities has led to the quiet demise of BPA's proposed contingency plan for 2001 hydro operations, the agency announced last week. BPA had floated the plan last month as a way to cope with declining water forecasts while still providing some H20 for fish needs.

Acting BPA administrator Steve Wright said as much at the March 7 NWPPC meeting in Portland. Flanked by fellow federal executives, Wright told Council members that the contingency was based on a 68 MAF year, while the reality may be more like a 59 MAF year or even less.

"We're hitting close to rock bottom," Wright said, noting that this year could become the second worst in the last 70 water years. The worst year on record was 1977, when only 53 MAF materialized. Continued drought conditions have the potential for setting a new record low, he said, pointing out that snowfall in the Columbia Basin is only 53 percent of average.

Wright unveiled a new in-house study that looks at operations for meeting load by nixing all spill and flow objectives at dams to aid the downstream migration of salmon. With spill and flow measures for fish in place, Wright said there is a 46 percent probability the agency would have less than zero cash reserves by September and a 69 percent chance it would have less than $300 million in the bank by the end of the fiscal year. By concentrating on meeting load, BPA had a negligible risk of draining its coffers by then, with only a 16 percent chance its reserves would be less than $300 million by the end of FY 2001.

If the water year turns out as bad as 1977, the agency said it is a sure thing that operating according to its contingency plan would put it in the red by September, but by focusing on meeting load, it had only a 4 percent chance of hitting zero reserves by then.

How Long A Drought?

Another nagging question is how long this drought condition will last and how much water should be left in reservoirs to cope with a dry fall--or an even longer dry spell.

Looking at 2002, Wright said a cash reserve of $100 million would be totally inadequate--BPA needs $400 million to $600 million to stay healthy. But questions about reservoir refill are creating some "critical public policy choices for the region," he told Council members. He said he wasn't sure that the region could just rely on TMT/IT forums to deal with the issues and called for outreach to Northwest governors and the Power Planning Council to help make these choices.

Wright said efforts to reduce load have helped so far. In January, BPA contracted for 1300 MW in market purchases and DSI load reductions that cost $200 million. Last month, the agency spent $42 million on market purchases and load reductions that totaled 460 aMW and has started talking to irrigators about strategies for voluntary purchases of pumping loads. BPA has also backed Northwest governors in their call for a 10 percent reduction in energy consumption and speeded up implementation of its $200 million incentive program for conservation investment and renewable resources development.

As for the possibility of helping out California later this year, Wright said BPA would do so if it has the surplus power, but he noted that with a 60 MAF water year, "surplus revenues disappear." He said California still owes the agency about $80 million from previous purchases.

As for fish survival, NMFS policymaker Brian Brown said his agency hasn't analyzed the "meeting load" strategy that Wright outlined, but it has looked at a scenario with operations ranging between BiOp spill and flow mandates and the BPA contingency plan. Inriver survival for spring chinook migrants from Idaho to below Bonneville Dam went down two to three percent from BiOp operations. With all BiOp mandates for spill and flow augmentation in place, inriver survivals have been around 50 percent in recent years.

An admittedly informal analysis by council staffer Bruce Suzumoto, using NMFS' own survival spreadsheet model, showed only a 4 percent difference in survival of inriver fish from a base case (no spill at collector dams, full transport, spill at all other dams) to an operation with full transport and no spill at federal dams. Suzumoto pointed out that a full transport strategy meant only about 10 percent of the spring juveniles migrating out of the Snake would be left in the river. Translating that into adult returns (at a 1 percent rate), he said the difference between his base case and no spill strategies amounted to only about 40 adult fish for every one million juvenile salmon migrating to sea.

"We're making some pretty big assumptions here," Suzumoto cautioned.

Another analysis of potential hydro operations was reported by consultant John Pizzimenti of Harza Engineering. Collaborating with consultants Kevin Malone (Mobrand Biometrics) and Darryll Olsen (Pacific Northwest Project), Pizzimenti recommended a max transport strategy and no spill for chinook in the Snake, with spill at John Day and The Dalles and pulsed spill at Bonneville II, with no power operations at all for Bonneville I. The report also called for no spring flow augmentation, but for saving water to add flows for fall chinook. It also suggested operating reservoirs at full pools to pulse flows to help guide inriver migrating fish past dams.

Harvest Changes Questioned

To add to the springtime confusion, after a presentation on the new harvest agreement between states, tribes and NMFS, some Council members wondered if it was the right time to boost harvest rates, even if the run was coming in at an estimated 364,000 fish, the largest since counting began at Bonneville Dam in 1938. The new agreement sets harvest rates as low as five percent when abundance is low, but as high as 17 percent when fish numbers are estimated above 400,000.
They're here!

Washington Council member Tom Karier was concerned that the poor water year might make for reduced spawning success. He said fish agencies had "a credibility issue" with the public for boosting harvest while the region is expected to conserve power and save water for fish. "Will all this sacrifice be for naught?" he asked. Consultant Mike Matelywich said the drought will have some effect on spring adults, but that the majority of the run is made up of hatchery fish.

Oregon council member Eric Bloch lauded the agreement, saying it provided more protection for spring chinook when abundance was low. But that's not the case, said NMFS policymaker Larry Rutter after the meeting. Rutter said the old harvest plan under US v. Oregon called for the same rate when numbers of returning adults were low. However, Rutter noted that under the old plan, this year's huge run would have been harvested at a 30 percent rate instead of the 15 percent rate that the new agreement calls for.

Idaho Council member Jim Kempton questioned Rutter about stream flows. Rutter admitted that concerns over low water "were not figured in." Kempton said there should have been an adjustment in harvest rates to compensate for the probability of reduced spawning success in the tributaries.

"I don't know that reduced spawning success will be the case," said Rutter. The new harvest regime will take about 2,400 more wild Snake fish than NMFS would have allowed under an interim 9 percent top harvest in effect since the old US v. Oregon expired a few years ago.

If Council staffer Suzomoto's analysis is in the ballpark, then the harvest rate boost will account for about 60 times more adult mortality of wild fish than if a "no-spill" hydro operation is implemented this spring. The 40 or so fewer adult fish that may materialize two years from now with the no-spill option would be less than one percent of the expected spring return in 2003, when figured with current conservative survival rates for barged fish.
-Bill Rudolph


Fish and hydro managers got more bad news when the water forecast was announced at the joint TMT/IT meeting on Mar. 1. Corps of Engineers' representative Rudd Turner said the early bird forecast indicated that January-to-July water supply would be 8 percent less than the February final forecast predicted. It's now pegged at only 55 percent of normal, or 62.1 MAF. That falls between the second and third worst water years on record (The March final forecast issued the following week didn't change the numbers).

Flows at Lower Granite on the Snake were pegged to be 6 percent less than the previous month's forecast. Water supply above Coulee slipped a couple of percentage points, to 59 percent of normal. In BC, inflow at Mica Reservoir was still around 76 percent of normal.

The realization that there will be even less water for fish than they previously thought led the managers to a lengthy discussion about reducing flows to keep chum redds covered below Bonneville Dam, to save more for juvenile fish migration in the spring. With the listed chums would be emerging from gravel beds in a few weeks, NMFS proposed to cut flows to reduce tailwater elevation at Bonneville slightly, from 11.7 feet to 11.5 feet.

Others suggested reducing the elevation to 11 feet, noting the difficulties of tuning flows to tenths of a foot. Fish managers said cutting elevations below 11 feet could cut off the spawning beds from the mainstem, keeping fish from entering the migration corridor and creating a potential problem from high bird predation.

In spite of questions from Montana rep Jim Litchfield, no one seemed to know just how many chums are in jeopardy, or how much of the lower Columbia's Evolutionarily Significant Unit the group spawning near Bonneville actually represents.

It was reported that if Bonneville flows remained at 130 kcfs, storage behind Grand Coulee would be bottomed out by March 10, at 1,220 feet. From then on, water from Idaho's Dworshak Reservoir would have to be used to keep flows up.

NMFS' Jim Ruff said managers couldn't afford the luxury of protecting 100 percent of the chum redds. He said seining the area could alert managers when the chum "swim up" begins and flows could then be reduced. Keeping more water in Dworshak is an agency priority, he said, and the supplies could be used to reduce water temperatures for migrating fish in the Snake later in the summer. To that end, EPA offered to model temperature effects from varying levels at Dworshak.

Ruff said BPA should still shape flow, especially at night, to aid chums with the lower elevation. WDF&W's Jim Nielsen said Washington didn't not require protection for all chums, but CRITFC's Bob Heinith suggested that BPA get federal money to pay for power while protecting the chum redds. "The federal government got us into this mess," he said, pointing out the lack of reserve cash in BPA's coffers, "and it should get us out of it."

But there were only seven feet left behind Coulee for augmenting flows; BPA rep Robyn MacKay said her agency didn't want flows to go below 120 kcfs at Bonneville.

By now, it seems obvious to all that little or no spill will be available at lower Snake projects this spring. But according to IDF&G spokesman Steve Pettit, "you need water to get fish to the collectors" to be barged. He said one-third of the 1994 spring chinook run never even made it to Lower Granite. But Pettit also said spill should still be utilized at Ice Harbor to aid juvenile fish from Lyons Ferry and the Tucannon River.

BPA's Scott Bettin urged participants to realize that the situation this year will change often, depending both on runoff and load demands. As managers get closer to formulating a plan for this year's operations, he likened it to a recipe "that we have to change every week or two." -B. R.


Old habits are hard to break. A few days after BPA administrator Steve Wright told the region that the power agency could go broke if it spilled water to aid fish passage this year, BPA was spilling water for hatchery salmon that are not on anybody's endangered list.

Salmon managers requested the spill at Bonneville Dam to help 5 million hatchery fall chinook. With the fish scheduled to be released from Spring Creek Hatchery, near White Salmon, WA above the dam on Mar. 8., the managers cited spill as the safest passage route over the dam and wanted the agency to pour 55 Kcfs over the spillway for 10 days to help the fish get to the estuary. They said they requested less spill this year "recognizing the present power situation and reservoir conditions." Concern for emerging ESA-listed chum fry below the dam also kept their request down from previous years to reduce the possibility of negative effects from dissolved gas levels. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, which runs the Spring Creek Hatchery, has said for years that these fall chinook act as a "buffer" for the harvest of threatened fall chinook stocks in ocean and inriver fisheries (See NW Fishletter 29). The agency was still using that old argument, even though the listed fish are slowly rebuilding and the harvest of listed fall chinook is down considerably in the ocean, with about 70 percent now occurring in inriver fisheries.

Since the hatchery tules produced for harvest are nearly ready to spawn by the time they reach inriver harvest areas, they fetch much less per pound than upriver brights bound for the Hanford Reach. The tules, which make up about one-third of the fall run, have sold for as little as 25 cents a pound in recent years. Much of the tule catch was wholesaled for pet food.

BPA's Wright said with the water year heading towards the worst on record, meeting the managers' request wouldn't be easy. "This is a very complex operation," he said last week, "involving several state and federal agencies that balances the needs of multiple fish species, our trust responsibilities to the Columbia river tribes and our need to be extremely judicious in how we use the water in the Columbia River Basin during this time of drought."

The managers called the 10-day spill "critical," but BPA allowed only three days of 12 hours' worth of spill (6 pm-6 am) Mar. 9-11, about 10 percent of last year's spill for the Spring Creek release. But cutting the duration of the spill probably won't affect the fish much. Biologists have known for years that most of the fish reach the dam within 24 hours, a fact that Spring Creek's assistant hatchery manager at the time, Jim Bayman, told NW Fishletter back in 1997.

BPA said the value of the water spilled during the three-day effort was about $2.1 million, but the limited payoff in survival improvements has critics like Montana Power Planning Council member Stan Grace going ballistic.

Grace said NWPPC staff, using the NMFS SIMPAS model estimated that without spill, survival by turbine and bypass systems at Bonneville was 93.5 percent. With nearly 50 percent of the water spilled, the survival improvement was pegged at less than one percent, up to 94.2 percent, which may add 50 to 60 more adults to "buffer" the fishery. BPA analysts ran the same model and came up with the same results.

"We speak of crisis in our energy outlook on Wednesday in front of the Council and press on," Grace told other federal authorities last week. "Friday we further compromise our power system reliability without sound biological justification. One lone dissenting voice [Montana's] is drowned at TMT when told dissent will be futile as the deal has already been made. Way to go, 'Federal Execs'! You don't share the blame alone however as the Governors' reps of three other states remained silent.

"We need to find a better way to work in the best interest of the public's welfare, Grace continued "but no forum will work unless the participants are honest. I remain doubtful that all of the federal entities are sincere but I am still willing to explore a way to protect the welfare of the region's citizens in a time of crisis."

Oregon had supported the original spill request contingent upon BPA's determination that the operation wouldn't undermine BPA's "financial solvency and ability to implement biological fish protection measures (e.g., spill) for listed fish later in the migration season."

Robyn MacKay, who represents BPA on the TMT, said this is just the first of many tradeoffs the region will have to make in the near future. She pointed out that if the water forecast doesn't bottom out, hydro operators may have some limited ability to spill water for fish this season. But the real policy issue, according to MacKay is "Do we store it, do we spill it, or save it for next year to put BPA in a better financial position."

But she said also it will be hard to find enough water to keep all the salmon redds in the Hanford Reach covered through spring. Other sources said there would be 10 feet more water behind Coulee if the hydro system hadn't kept downriver listed chum redds watered all winter. -B. R.


Last week's meeting of the Power Planning Council was the scene of some heavy horse trading over funding "high priority" fish and wildlife proposals for which BPA had budgeted $10 million to $15 million this year. The category was created to cover actions that could be implemented immediately to assist ESA-listed fish in the Columbia Basin.

When all was said and done, Council members voted to recommend $19 million worth of projects. Some, like several Idaho-based proposals designed to boost flows in sub-basins, received extremely low ratings from the panel of independent scientists who reviewed them. The 96 proposals were also reviewed by NMFS, agencies and tribes (CBFWA) and BPA staff , as well as the Power Council's own staff.

Bob Austin, deputy director of BPA's F&W division, said the list would be sent over to NMFS again so the federal fish agency can determine if they are high-priority BiOp mandates. He said BPA won't be inclined to pay for proposals that won't give the power agency some credit for satisfying elements of the new Biological Opinion.

The proposals rated highly by both the science panel and CBFWA managers included the purchase of three ranches and other conservation easements in Oregon's John Day sub-basin, for a total of nearly $10 million. Another $6 million would be spend on projects to acquire water rights to southeast Washington's Tucannon River, increase flows and pay for irrigation screens in the Walla Walla and Hood rivers, and modernize irrigation systems in some Idaho sub-basins.

The Council recommended adding a few more projects, bringing the total to about $19 million. BPA's Austin was skeptical his agency would fund everything the Council asked for, but the $19 million is a far cry from the $45 million in projects considered high priority by CBFWA managers, who designated another $45 million eventually needed for emergency or long-term actions

Idaho Council member Mike Field took some heat for supporting several projects that would boost flows in the Lemhi River, a tributary of the Salmon at the foot of the Rockies. The ISRP [Independent Scientific Review Panel] had problems with a $2 million proposal to boost flows by improving an irrigation system and opening more habitat in a Lemhi tribe called Hawley Creek. They said the proposal failed to present data on stock status or to describe potential or immediate benefits to at-risk fish populations by adding 4 cfs to the river.

Field said the Lemhi is one of three "priority" sub-basins named in the new hydro BiOp, with the John Day and Methow being the others. Last year, NMFS worked with some stakeholders to boost flows in the Lemhi after a few dead smolts were discovered by an IDFW employee. This year, a new state Office of Species Conservation is sponsoring projects to raise flows and improve habitat, Field said, who also pointed out that legislation is in the works that calls for working toward legally mandated minimum flows of 35 cfs in the Lemhi. If the project is funded, "it allows us to start the process of a water bank," Field said. Flows were down to 10 cfs last year, half of what IDFG says are critical for fish needs. When the legislation passes, Field said the in-stream flows will be legally protected; such protection was another concern of the science panel.

Another controversial proposal was a $3.75 million project to pay for conservation easements as part of the $17 million cost for the defunct Arrowleaf development in the upper Methow Basin in northeast Washington. An option to purchase the property had been picked up by the Trust For Public Lands. It was supported heavily by the two Washington council members, who trotted out supporters who lauded the conservation and riparian value that would be maintained by the purchase. Otherwise, the land could be developed into at least 70 lots.

But Montana Council member Stan Grace said it only preserved the land on one side of the river and didn't deserve a high priority for funding. CBFWA managers, however, rated the proposal highly: the science panel put it in their 'B' category, meaning it was likely to provide important benefits to ESA stocks, but lack of information precluded a technical review. The panel unanimously supported it, but questioned the cost "relative to other purchases." BPA had ranked it below a high priority because the property was already being purchased. In the end, the Council whittled $1.25 million off BPA's prospective share before they voted it on their high priority recommendation list, Montana notwithstanding. -B. R.


A panel of experts assembled by NMFS has come out with a scathing criticism of one of the region's main tools for assessing salmon habitat and potential productivity, known as EDT [Ecosystem Diagnosis and Treatment]. The complicated model, developed by Mobrand Biometrics, is being embraced by salmon recovery players throughout the region, from Washington's Methow watershed to Oregon's Sandy River Basin, where the Portland Water Bureau is using it in planning efforts. The Power Planning Council has spent thousands of dollars developing EDT in the regional Framework Process for fish and wildlife, to help inventory and recover fish stocks in 52 Columbia River subbasins.

But the six professors who make up the Salmon Recovery Science Review Panel say the model is too complicated. The panel, all well-regarded experts in fields like evolutionary ecology, conservation biology and theoretical and mathematical ecology, met in Seattle in early December to hear from regional modelers. Their findings were recently posted on the NMFS Recovery planning web site. "The more complex models become, the more easily one can twist them to do almost anything, and the less reliable they become," the panel said in its report. They singled out EDT with its 45 habitat variables as a case in point. "...the incorporation of so many variables into a formal model renders the predictions of such a model virtually useless."

The panel said EDT "exemplifies how modeling should not be done. It is over-parameterized, includes key functional relationships that cannot be known and cannot be tested, creates a false sense of accuracy, yet introduces error and uncertainty. Its very complexity makes it difficult to determine the effect of various assumptions and parameter values on the model's behavior and relation to data. The attempt at quantification through subjective 'expert opinion' compounds these fatal weaknesses, especially the model's inability to confront and improve with confrontation of data."

The panel said NMFS' CRI [Cumulative Risk Initiative] model, on the other hand, "offers the possibility of direct confrontation with data. " The panel recommended development of various modeling approaches along with experiments--"particularly experiments involving barging, to resolve a key issue--the size of indirect or deferred hydroelectric-induced mortality smolts suffer as they move downstream."

A NMFS review of EDT said that the model was "filling a void" because it's the only tool that is ready to use for summarizing any habitat in terms of "predicted fish numbers." But the reviewers said that important limitations need to be recognized when it is used for recovery planning. "In most regions, the majority of the habitat descriptions that form the foundation of EDT will not be based on actual measured data," the January 29 memo said. "Instead, EDT will have to be built up from derived data (conclusions derived from measured data) or the best guesses of experts."

They said EDT provides a "false sense of precision by using non-linear equations with coefficients involving several significant digits, when in fact there is no way 'expert opinion' could be so precise."

But the NMFS reviewers--Peter Kareiva, who helped developed the CRI model, and John Stein, who heads the Northwest Science Center's Environmental Conservation division--said the limitations of EDT do not imply that it has no value, but "suggest that EDT should not be oversold as a recovery planning tool and that guidelines for its use are needed. In fact, this is true for any model." -B. R.


BPA is reportedly close to reaching an agreement on an irrigation buyback program involving the three irrigation districts that comprise the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project. At the same time, the agency has made some changes in the irrigation buyback program it has offered to is customer utilities, which should lead to additional participation.

Late last week BPA notified its public agency customers that farmers who irrigate crops during the month of April would still be eligible for participation in the buy-back program, said BPA's Rick Itami. Itami also said customer utilities had indicated this change would spur additional participation in the program, which had initially met with a tepid reaction The agency is also working with Franklin and Benton County PUDs on a pilot element to the program for irrigators with booster pumps, he said.

Meanwhile, the agency has been negotiating with the Quincy Irrigation District and the East and South Columbia Basin Irrigation Districts to reach an agreement that could potentially take 75,000 of some 650,000 total acres of irrigated land out of action this season, thus freeing up the electricity otherwise needed to pump water for other uses. While the irrigation districts purchase their electricity directly from the Bureau of Reclamation, BPA's Ron Rodewald said the agreement would shift that electricity from BuRec needs into BPA's system.

Rodewald stressed any such agreement would have to meet the needs of the irrigation districts and the individual farmers those districts represent, as well as the BuRec and BPA, before it could be approved. Still, Rodewald said he's hopeful an agreement can be reached sometime this week. By mid-week, BPA had bumped its offer from $265 an acre to $330.

Less Chips, More Fish?

Of the 900 bids Idaho Power has received from customers interested in its irrigation buyback program, the utility thinks it can save 409,000 MWh by accepting all bids at 15 cents/KWh or less--about 360 bids. With that many bids in hand, the utility has requested the second level of authorization from the IPUC, said Idaho Power's Maggie Brilz--to accept the bids specified. The Idaho PUC has scheduled a public hearing on the proposal for March 13. The utility is hoping for speedy approval, Brilz said, as it has until 5 pm March 15 to accept bids--and because if farmers are going to plant, they need to do so soon.

The potential ripple effects of the utility's proposal was the topic of a state legislative hearing last week, involving the interim committee on electric restructuring, as well as House and Senate committees on agricultural affairs and natural resources. Legislators want to know what will happen to the farm economy if a large number of farmers opt for Idaho Power's program--or similar programs offered by PacifiCorp and Avista--decide not to irrigate and, therefore, not to plant this season.

"From what we've been hearing, it's hard to make an assessment," said IPC's Brilz. Bidders in Idaho Power's program don't appear to be concentrated in any one specific are of the state--a concern raised during the hearing--and "there will still be money going into those communities" through the buyback, she pointed out.-Jude Noland


As NW Fishletter was preparing to go online, Washington Gov. Gary Locke was holding a press conference at a Western Washington reservoir to announce an official drought emergency. Water supplies in the state are down about 50 percent in many areas.

The announcement could speed temporary water transfers issued by the Department of Ecology and tap into a $5 million account where local entities could borrow money or receive grants to help pay for measures that save water. The state could also use some of the funds to lease water rights to aid fish. The DOE also said it was possible, but unlikely, that the agency could process emergency drought permits to replace water that's been cut off.

DOE announced March 7 that low flows in the Columbia could shut down water supplies to nearly 300 irrigators later this season. The possible move could effect growers with "interruptible" water rights issued between then and 1992.

Irrigators didn't take too kindly to the possibility of getting cut off and some vowed they would keep pumps on no matter what happened.

Eight eastern Washington senators sent a letter to Gov. Locke that said flow levels set by DOE in 1980 were set "unreasonably high." They called for a meeting with the governor and his water advisor, Jim Waldo.

DOE said a toll-free number would inform irrigators if they could water crops on a week-by-week basis. But consultant Darryll Olsen said pumps were going to stay on. "People just can't walk away from the financial investments they have in these systems," he told the Tri-City Herald.

Growers in the Cle Elum and Yakima valleys who have only junior water rights are expected to get hit hard as well. They may only receive 38 percent of their normal supply. Locke said the Department of Agriculture and the Conservation Commission will help match up farmers who have excess water with those who need water to save their crops.

As for fish, the Department of Fish and Wildlife is identifying the places where they are at greatest risk. Locke's staff will be working with the state's congressional delegation and the National Marine Fisheries Service to obtain federal money to expand the drought emergency fund. -Bill Rudolph

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