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NWF.121/Mar.29.2001
[1] WA Says Council Process Flawed: Wants Direct Funding For ESA
[2] NWPPC Predicts Possible Power Deficit
[3] Feds Still On Fence Over Dam Operations
[4] Spring Chinook Run Starts Off With A Bang
[5] Spring Harvest BiOp Hits The Street
[6] State Fires Back In Culvert Lawsuit

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[1] WA SAYS COUNCIL PROCESS FLAWED: WANTS DIRECT FUNDING FOR ESA

Representatives of Washington Gov. Gary Locke were cruising the eastern part of their state last week, calling on editorial boards in various cities to explain how they want to deal with ESA-listed fish.

Locke's salmon advisor Curt Smitch has been critical of the Power Planning Council's new subbasin planning process in the past. Now he is concerned that using the process to develop ESA recovery measures will prove too slow and unwieldy to be effective. That could result in missing the three-, five- and eight-year recovery progress check points mandated in the BiOp, thus jeopardizing the existence of the four lower Snake River dams.

Smitch and state ag director Jim Jesernig were telling editorial writers that the state would like to bypass the Council funding process and receive block grant funding directly from BPA to pay for ESA recovery measures.

"The Power Council was never set up to enforce the ESA," Smitch said. He told NW Fishletter last week that the action agencies' (BuRec, COE and BPA) decision to fund the hydro BiOp's off-site mitigation component through the Council has the state worried. He said he's gotten signals from NMFS as well that the Council/CBFWA process may not be up to the task.

Though his state's Fish and Wildlife Department already participates in the Council/CBFWA prioritization process, Smitch said that new ESA requirements have made it necessary to bring in other state agencies to deal with water and land issues involved in off-site mitigation efforts. He said a list of proposals that focus on improving listed stocks is being put together by the state Departments of Ecology, Agriculture, Fish and Wildlife, the Office of Community Development and the state's Conservation Commission. Acting regional NMFS chief Donna Darm indicated she thought it is an interesting approach, Smitch said, and that her agency would take a look at the list.

Smitch hopes that once NMFS prioritizes the proposals BPA can fund them directly and avoid the process that's already in place.

But the Northwest Power Act may not allow for such a shortcut; it says that BPA F&W spending must be "consistent" with the Council's Fish and Wildlife program.

NWPPC chair, Washington member Larry Cassidy, said that with so many listed stocks, his state is in a tight situation. "We've tried to 'hatchery' our way out of this and it hasn't worked."

The next big battles, he said, will be fought over land and water. But Cassidy pointed to the use of existing processes to deal with ESA concerns, noting that last month's review of "high priority" proposals, solicited to help listed stocks immediately and funded from a special $15 million fund, is a sign that the Council can respond quickly. And it's a way for states to sponsor proposals, not just their fish agencies.

After reviewing prioritization by CBFWA, NMFS, a panel of independent scientists and its own staff earlier this month, Council members voted to recommend $19 million in proposals (See NW Fishletter 120). The list was sent to NMFS for a new prioritization and should be back in BPA's hands in a few weeks, said Bob Austin, the agency's deputy administrator for fish and wildlife.

Austin doesn't think the lengthy funding and review process will adversely impact the future of the Snake dams, as Smitch has argued. Austin noted that NMFS' Brian Brown told the Council recently that the three- and five-year check points are mainly to make sure programs are in place, and that after eight years--with only two generations of fish returns--it could still be very premature to decide whether or not to breach the dams.

"I'm not sure we need to fund all their own needs," Austin said of the Smitch/Jesernig policy mission.

A recent op-ed piece by Jesernig was blunt. "We know what needs to be done," he wrote in part. "What we don't have is a long-term funding source to do it. Additional money driven to conservation, storage and re-use projects will not only help fish recovery but also ensure economic viability for Eastern Washington's agricultural-based economy."

Rather than more studies, Jesernig said proposals such as a $50-million pump exchange project near Kennewick need to be funded now.

Other regional players, including the Public Power Council's Rob Walton, have questions about Washington's proposal. "I welcome Washington's ideas to increase the chance of success for regional salmon recovery, but in Mr. Jesernig's op-ed piece, he said he knows what needs to be done. However, from the ratepayers' perspective, the Washington proposal seems to lack clear goals."

Walton noted that Washington's own salmon recovery plan, Extinction Is Not An Option, was criticized by independent reviewers who said it wasn't based on specific goals that reflected each watershed's potential or included actions to prevent further harm. The scientists themselves said the state plan was a "proposed set of minor changes to existing programs and reliance on historically ineffective voluntary measures [that] leaves an impression that tinkering with failures of the past will restore glories of the past. This approach is likely to result in false expectations and is not based on science."

Walton also wondered why Washington's Fish and Wildlife Department had recently voted with Oregon to boost harvest rates of listed fish, including upper Columbia spring chinook, an endangered stock.

Washington's Smitch admitted that not all agencies in his state were yet "reading from the same page." But he said that with the ESA watershed issues and other problems associated with this year's drought and power reliability, it's important to develop a program that will benefit both agricultural interests and fish. He said the Council's ecosystem approach to subbasin planning won't mesh with local jurisdictions, especially if the effort tries to use the EDT [Ecosystem Diagnosis and Treatment] model to gauge the potential productivity of tributary areas, noting that NMFS had "trashed" EDT in a recent report by its own panel of independent reviewers.

How did Smitch's message go over in eastern Washington? "Pretty well," said one Wenatchee newspaperman. -Bill Rudolph


[2] NWPPC PREDICTS POSSIBLE POWER DEFICIT

Optimism is as scarce as cheap California power in the Northwest Power Planning Council's 2001 electricity supply report. Hard hit by drought and skyrocketing prices, the region faces potential shortfalls and severe economic hardship, warned the report. In a worst-case scenario, the spring and summer shortfall could reach 8000 Megawatt-months.

The Columbia River system will also be hard hit, with emergency operations likely to continue depleting the reservoirs, raising concern over system reliability next fall and winter. "It is a virtual certainty that emergency operations will be necessary during spring and summer to keep the electricity system from suffering outages," said the report. Salmon recovery mandates could take yet another hit, with spill curtailment a further near-certainty.

Unless the Northwest reduces demand, increases in-region generation and buys more power, the council predicted a bleak economic picture for 2001.

California's restructuring effort came in for its share of the blame, but much of the current crisis is placed at the feet of Mother Nature. The current January-through-July runoff forecast has the region's water supply at 55 percent of normal. Only one other year--1977--was worse. If this year's water conditions match 1977's, the council predicted 2001 shortfalls could approach 8000 MW-months, with the deficit in May reaching 3300 MW-months. "If the region does not take extraordinary steps in the operation of the hydro system or purchase substantial amounts of power on the market at what are almost certain to be very high prices, we could face significant deficits this spring and summer," said the report.

There are difficult tradeoffs facing the region, with very few realistic options, said the council. Conservation and new generation were called for, but the report admitted that the hydro system would have to shoulder much of the burden, augmenting concern over system reliability in future months. "For this reason, we believe that operating the hydro system across the spring and summer to achieve BiOp reservoir levels at the end of August is a very important consideration."

But there are only two ways to keep the reservoirs at biological opinion levels, added the council: either buy more power or spill less water. As power prices continue to escalate, the council chose to emphasize the advantages of reduced spill. "With significant reductions in spill, in conjunction with use of emergency hydro, it would be possible to maintain a reliable system across the spring and summer and leave reservoirs very close to BiOp levels going into the fall," said the report.

While admitting that this action "raises questions" regarding fish recovery mandates, the council said it also gives the system additional flexibility. The 'saved' water--about 1600 MW-months, based on 1977 water conditions--could be used for generation, for reservoir refill and later spill, or to produce power for sale outside the region, with the proceeds used to fund other fish recovery schemes.

The report also outlined possible new generation options and suggested that permitting processes be expedited. But it admitted that these actions would not reduce this year's potential shortfall. A more immediate solution could be found in conservation, including more efficient lighting, appliances and improved building heating/cooling systems.

The report also touted pricing structures that encourage more efficient usage. "This disconnect between real-time wholesale prices and retail prices is a fundamental deficiency in the electricity market and contrasts with the markets for most goods and services," argued the report. "Customers facing such 'real-time pricing' would have proper incentives to reduce or shift use in response to current conditions, or to invest in energy efficiency measures in response to expected prices over the long run."

Programs such as voluntary curtailment, demand shifting and efficiency improvements could be expanded, said the report, as could load reduction programs. Fully utilized, a load reduction program could reduce demand on the system by another 1800 MW above the current expected reductions, added the report.

The council touched on efforts to convince FERC to impose price controls as a solution to the energy crisis, but took no position on this contentious question, maintaining that "Regardless of the outcome of this debate, significant price increases are likely to occur."

That theme was echoed throughout the report, which repeatedly stressed that "extraordinary steps" are imperative if the region is to avoid critical deficits this spring and summer. -Lynn Francisco


[3] FEDS STILL ON FENCE OVER DAM OPERATIONS

Federal authorities will meet again March 30 with state and tribal representatives to hear final comments on plans for operating the hydro system in this drought-plagued year.

The early bird April forecast announced this morning boosted the April-Sept. water supply in the Canadian end of the Columbia Basin by 2 percent, to 78 percent of normal. For The Dalles, the April-Sept. forecast remained the same, a measly 54 percent of average, while the Jan.-July forecast actually dropped one percent--to 53 percent of average. The news was worse in the Snake Basin, where the April-July water supply forecast at Lower Granite dropped from 53 percent to 49 percent of normal.

State fish agencies and tribes have not been able to develop a consensus plan among themselves. Main issues involve water storage at reservoirs- since none are expected to fill, how best should it be used, to aid fish passage by augmenting flows now or later, or saving as much as possible for next year?

One thing is almost certain. Most fish will be barged from lower Snake dams this spring, but whether barging from McNary will take place in the spring remains a point of contention. Proponents argue that it will improve survival of upper and mid-Columbia stocks which would otherwise be stuck in the river, where little or no spill may take place at lower river dams.

A recent NMFS analysis says that "tens of thousands" of smolts from various ESUs outside the Snake will suffer higher mortality rates if spill is reduced or eliminated, but it didn't examine possible survival benefits from barging at McNary in the spring.
Near NMFS Seattle headquarters, the
2001 BiOp is on display.

But the analysis does suggest that Snake River spring chinook will fare best from barging in this low flow year. With nearly 90 percent of them in barges, the agency said its SIMPAS model showed little difference (0.2%) in survival between BiOp-mandated spill and non-spill operations, with total system survival in the range of 55 percent to 64 percent. Steelhead would show about the same results.

As for fall chinook from the Snake, a no-spill operation would reduce survival from 4.1 percent to 4.0 percent, which is about one-third of current survivals. The SIMPAS model estimates that about 80 percent of the fall chinook will not even make it to Lower Granite Dam in a flow year as bad as this one.

But the chum saving operation that boosted winter flows has put the reservoir behind Grand Coulee near the bottom of its operating range, putting policymakers on the hook for some big decisions. Washington wants to save as much flow for summer augmentation as possible, but lower river tribes want full flow augmentation for both spring and summer fish migrations. At a March 14 TMT/IT meeting, CRITFC spokesman Kyle Martin said his agency was hoping that next winter would be warm and dry, instead of cold and dry like this year. Others pointed out that may be something of a gamble to bet on a good water year in 2002.

Environmental groups, including American Rivers, have called for more water as well. They want a million acre-feet from Idaho to boost flows in the Snake this year, but they weren't very specific about how that could be arranged. In a letter to Northwest congressional leaders, they opposed the proposed federal plan, saying it will cause a "massive loss" of salmon.

A conference call last week among technical managers included discussion of cutting flows from Coulee to help refill, which could dewater some fall chinook redds in the Hanford Reach--possibly affecting 10 percent of the redds for each 5 kcfs reduction, which could reduce water elevation by about one-half-foot, said Grant County PUD biologist Joe Lukas.

Tribes are adamantly opposed to the potential operation, but BPA representative Therese Lamb pointed out that the chum operation has put the hydro system in a real pickle, especially if the new forecast calls for dropping flows. NMFS has so far stayed out of the argument. The fall chinook are not listed, in fact, there are about 6,000 redds in the Reach this year. The Vernita Bar flow agreement that governs winter flows to keep redds covered, calls for more flow coordination between parties in low flow years, something feds will undoubtedly discuss Mar. 30.

When all is said and done, BPA may simply curtail any operations that jeopardize reliability of the power system. A new version of the feds' operational principles was being shopped around among the agencies this week and will be unveiled March 30.

"But don't expect any big surprises," said one fed just before the meeting. He noted one thing, though. "The Florida vote has sure changed the landscape." -Bill Rudolph


[4] SPRING CHINOOK RUN STARTS OFF WITH A BANG

With a huge run predicted for the Columbia River this spring--over 360,000 chinook--the fish gods did not wait long to tease amateur fish counters everywhere. Official counting began at Bonneville Dam March 15, when 18 fish were tallied--no big deal. But four days later the daily count jumped to 416 and the run was off to the races.

By March 26, 4,727 chinook had been counted: the 10-year average is only 212 fish by that date. Granted, it's still very early; but the run has all the makings of a blockbuster. Last year, 340 fish had been counted by now--a spring run that came in at better than 178,000 fish. In 1999, only 87 fish had been seen by March 21, out of a run that totaled 39,000 fish by the end of May.

Though fish managers cite the big numbers as the result of good river flows and improved ocean conditions, the fact remains that Idaho released four times as many hatchery fish as usual in 1999, approaching full potential. And although flows were good, about 70 percent of the fish in the Snake made the trip downstream in barges. The Snake component of this year's spring run is estimated at more than 200,000 fish, with nearly 40,000 of them expected to be wild. Daily counts can be seen at several sites, including Columbia River DART and NewsData's FishWEB. -B.R.


[5] SPRING HARVEST BIOP HITS THE STREET

Recognizing the "unprecedented" size of this year's run of spring chinook in the Columbia and Snake rivers, NMFS' latest BiOp, issued March 24, OKs the boost in harvest rates that states and tribes agreed on last month. The run is expected to be twice last year's 178,000 fish--the largest, in fact, since counts began at Bonneville Dam in 1938. And wild fish returns on the Snake are expected to be more than twice that of any return since 1979. Upriver Columbia stocks are improving as well.

Once approved by a federal judge, the new BiOp will allow tribal fishermen to catch 13 percent of the spring run, with a 2 percent allowance for non-Indian fisheries. Harvest on the summer component of the run will be limited to 5 percent and 0.5 percent, respectively.

The technical committee that generates run size estimates has predicted a spring run of 364,000 chinook to the mouth of the Columbia, which translates into a tribal catch of about 47,000 fish. Average spring harvests for tribes have been just a tad over 5,000 fish. Last year, harvest was capped at 9 percent with a larger-than-expected return of 178,000 springers.

NMFS has accepted the sliding scale in the states' and tribes' five-year agreement, which calls for lower harvest rates when run size decreases. "The tradeoff for somewhat higher harvest rates in 2001," says the BiOp, "is that there must be certainty that the conservation benefits (i.e., harvest rates lower than 9 percent) will apply if run sizes in the out years are more similar to what they have been over the last decade, i.e., lower than 9 percent." NMFS said it is too early to predict whether "dramatically higher survival rates" last year and this year will continue.

But the agency was satisfied that harvest rates spelled out in the agreement "were at least as protective as a fixed 9 percent harvest rate," saying it recognized that "spawners are generally more valuable biologically when they are more scarce. Thus a higher rate in more abundant years is a good tradeoff for lower rates in years of less abundance."

Harvest rates could be as high as 17 percent, but go as low as 5.5 percent, based on a combination of aggregate run size and wild stock abundance.

The spring harvest BiOp acknowledges that the catch of ESA-listed stocks mixed in with the huge hatchery returns will be higher than those reflected in the newest hydro BiOp, which spells out performance standards to be met with survival improvements through offsite mitigation. For Snake River spring chinook, three of the seven index stocks won't require any survival improvements outside what's expected from the hydro system, but the other four index stocks require additional improvements up to 66 percent.

"Inherent in the overall analysis," says the new BiOp, "is the assumption that harvest impacts will remain at the levels reflected in the most recent biological opinions. Generally speaking, increases in the harvest rates, particularly over the long-term, will change these statistics and increase the level of survival improvements required in other sectors. Harvest increases, beyond those assumed, would otherwise simply reflect a further increase of risk to the species."

Upper Columbia spring chinook stocks are improving, according to NMFS, from below cautionary levels just a few years ago. With an estimated return of 6,300 fish to the river mouth, the agency pegs the run at "about equivalent to the identified cautionary level," after figuring returns to the sub-basins after harvest, inter-dam loss and pre-spawning mortality.

The BiOp mentions an alternative forecast from WDFW staff, based on redd counts, that estimates the upper Columbia run size about half that. But it indicates the technical advisory committee has not reviewed this analysis.

Using NMFS analysis on survival change needed to achieve survival and recovery in addition to hydro improvements, the three index stocks require 24 percent to 178 percent improvement. The document uses the same language as with the listed Snake runs--that increases in harvest rates will increase the level of survival improvements needed in other sectors. -B. R.


[6] STATE FIRES BACK IN CULVERT LAWSUIT

The state of Washington has responded to a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of state tribes to replace hundreds of road culverts that block salmon habitat from migrating fish. In a document filed March 15 in federal district court in Seattle, the state said that an impasse had been reached with tribes over the culvert issue when tribes demanded the state "admit the existence of some treaty-based right to environmental protection of indeterminate scope."

But WA denies that state-owned culverts have caused significant declines in tribal harvests since 1986. The tribes want all the culverts fixed in the next five years. But the state says it would take 20 years to fix all of them.

In addition, the document points out that a 70-year HCP [Habitat Conservation Plan] developed by the state Department of Natural Resources was approved by the USFWS in 1996--one that addressed the needs of anadromous salmonids--and that the federal agency "announced it was issuing the permit because the HCP met the USFWS's 'trust responsibility to Native American Tribes.'"

Since NMFS and USFWS have reviewed hundreds of state road projects and routinely approved them, including culvert designs, the state says that the feds had determined that the design satisfied any treaty obligation, because the federal agencies have been guided by a Secretarial Order that requires them to coordinate with tribes over treaty rights and the ESA.

Washington also said the Forest and Fish Report with NMFS that was approved to satisfy the ESA's Section 4(d) Rule has also satisfied any treaty obligations because it includes a 15-year remediation schedule for forest roads.

Further, the state says that if its actions do not satisfy "some treaty-based duty," the federal government should pay for fixing all culverts. Estimates for repairing all of them range over $100 million. Gov. Gary Locke has requested $40 million over the next two years to start fixing them.

The state said if the court recognizes the existence of a treaty-based right or duty of fish habitat protection, it wants the court to require that federal agencies identify and repair culverts on federal property before the state is required to remove or repair any of its own culverts. Washington also said that any culverts maintained by tribes that hinder fish passage should be identified and fixed at the same time the state would begin such work. -B.R.

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