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[1] Power Council Wades Deeper Into Water Crisis
[2] Spring Run Builds Record Momentum
[3] WA State Settles With Irrigators Over New Permits
[4] Okanogan County Pulls Out Of Methow Basin Talks

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After hearing a staff report at their Boise meeting that estimates meager survival benefits for most listed fish stocks from spilling water over mainstem dams, Power Planning Council members voted for "preliminary" recommendations April 4 that track with most operations that federal agencies have under consideration. That includes maximized barging of fish from lower Snake dams, and possibly from McNary Dam as well.

Other preliminary recommendations include spilling water only at John Day, The Dalles and Bonneville dams, but only using "surface spill" via sluice ways where relatively small amounts of water can be used to pass fish over dams, compared to normal spillway operations. And they asked for both federal authorities and Mid-Columbia PUDs to review such alternatives and report back in a few weeks. If conditions improve, then spill could be increased, they said.

The Power Council also suggested that some of the income generated by spilling less water be set aside to pay for operational changes and boosting flows in tributaries. It will take public comment until April 20 and make a final decision on the recommendations at its April 24-26 meeting in Spokane.

As for reducing fish spill this year, NMFS assistant regional administrator Brian Brown said his agency came up with "basically the same results" as the Council. Since both analyses used the NMFS SIMPAS model to estimate survival, it's no great shock to see similar results. But at the April 4 meeting, Brown said his agency presented the results differently.

For Snake River spring chinook, for instance, Brown said a max barging/no spill option for hydro operations would results in a 12- to 15-percent reduction in juvenile survival for in-river migrants (from 27 percent to 23 percent).

Max Barging Means Few Fish In River

The analysis by NWPPC staffer Bruce Suzumoto looked at a larger canvas. With more than 95 percent of the fish being barged (with 98 percent survival), his results showed that for every 1,000 smolts that began their migration at Lower Granite, only 31 of them would still be in the river below the first three collector dams, and only 14 would survive to below Bonneville Dam. If BiOp-level spills were implemented, in-river survival could go up by four more fish.

Suzumoto's analysis also showed potential benefits from barging spring chinook and steelhead at McNary Dam, especially stocks from the upper Columbia.

"We're more cautious in attributing benefits," said Brown, who noted his agency has not modeled the McNary barging operation, though NMFS presented a draft BiOp on the subject at the TMT/IT meeting the following day in Portland.

Acknowledging that a maximum barging policy will leave few fish in the river, Brown said of this year, "We're looking at it as a salvage operation."

When pressed by Montana Council member Stan Grace, Brown said it was likely that NMFS would recommend barging fish from McNary "every other day" this spring. But he said some results from the mid-1990s suggest no benefit from barging fish there.

The Council analysis projected an estimated range of returning adults, depending on how many barged fish survive compared to in-river migrants. With no spill in the lower river, mid-Columbia stocks could lose nearly 12 percent, but upper Columbia spring chinook could gain 7 percent--since many would be barged from McNary. Using a low smolt-to-adult return rate of 0.2 percent, that could add 172 fish to a total of 2,477 fish. A return rate 10 times higher would boost numbers accordingly.
McNary Dam's juvenile bypass maze.

But without spill, Mid-C steelhead could lose 71 returning fish, with a 614 fish total--or far more if return rates are much higher.

As for Snake River fish, the Council analysis estimates that with 0.2 percent SAR, the no-spill option would result in the loss of only two spring chinook out of a total adult return of 1,279. Lately, those SARs have been running above 1 percent.

NMFS policymaker Brown said his agency hasn't used the estimates of juvenile migrants to develop estimates of returning adults. "We didn't think it would be very informative or reliable."

Others who heard the presentation were critical of the Council effort because they felt it low-balled the benefits of transportation. Bruce Lovelin of the Columbia River Alliance said it's likely that the barged fish will survive at higher rates than modeled.

But representatives of Idaho Rivers United felt the opposite. Speaking before the Council at the Boise meeting, IRU biologist Scott Bosse called the NMFS science on which the analysis was based "extremely flawed" because it used reach survival data from PIT-tagged fish migrating in years when flows have been much better than expected this year. He also thought the analysis overstated survival of barged fish relative to inriver fish. He told Council members that BPA should buy a million acre feet of water in Idaho to augment Snake flows and reduce the fish trasnport strategy. "Many crops have no market," he said of irrigators. "They could be compensated."

Council chair Larry Cassidy sympathized. "We acknowledge this is not the best treatment of fish," he said. "We know transportation is not the best route."

Suzumoto's analysis says the projected spring and summer flows were estimated using a weighted average of the eight lowest water years in a 61-year record. "In the event that 2001 is even lower than these averages, it is possible that in-river survival may decline further and thus the relative benefit of transporting fish, where possible, may increase."

Cassidy noted that he had received a hand-delivered letter from Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber that very morning that stressed the need for dedicating the most water available for instream flows. Kitzhaber also urged BPA to commit a "substantial portion" of the added revenues from reduced spill to fund fish and wildlife projects that would mitigate the effects of the reduction.

Council members Karier and Bloch suggested sending Suzumoto's paper out for public comment and peer review, but Grace supported the max transport option. Council recommendations may be an exercise in futility since federal agencies expect to have an operational strategy nearly ready by April 13 (A draft plan should be posted on the feds' salmon recovery website sometime April 12. It was reported that some agencies in the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority were "up in arms" over the feds' plan at a CBPWA meeting this morning.

BPA had already declared a power emergency the day before the Boise meeting, to postpone the beginning of the spill program at lower Snake dams for two weeks. In a April 3 press release, BPA said agencies will describe "what levels of spill may be available for spring and summer migrants over the April-August period. Water saved by not spilling is sufficient to generate 1,000 megawatts-enough to serve a city the size of Seattle."

A BPA press conference last Monday made it clear that huge rate hikes are in store for the region, partly due to the drought, but mostly from the great spikes in spot market power, brought about by the California power deregulation meltdown. The agency asked public utilities to cut usage 10 percent and suggested they would pay aluminum companies to stay off the grid for two years.

Little Flexibility In Hydro System

The probability of having little or no water to spill for fish this year was driven home by BPA VP for generation supply Greg Delwiche. Delwiche explained BPA's latest forecast--which calls for a 55.7 MAF year--and why the agency has serious reliability concerns for next winter. If the water year ends up below 53 MAF, he said all flexibility disappears and questions of financial solvency, meeting load and keeping reservoirs from going below summer limits become paramount. If pools aren't refilled to BiOp levels, power system reliability will be negatively impacted. He said BPA won't know until late June just how badly the water year will shape up.

BPA supports full barging out of the Snake and a transport evaluation in the spring. If there is water to spill, Delwiche said they recommend it be prioritized, first at The Dalles, then Bonneville, John Day, McNary and Ice Harbor. The agency also supports a surging operation to help fish move through Lower Granite Pool.

As for balancing spring and summer spill, there will be no decision to make if water conditions get much worse and any extra may have to be stored for next winter.

After hearing Council members express concern about power needs next winter, Delwiche agreed with them. "We, too, are very alarmed about next year."

Canadian storage could have big problems as well, he said. Normal water conditions have Canadian reservoirs 94 percent full by Sept. 30. Under current conditions, he said they may only be 30 to 60 percent full by then.

Doug Ancona from Grant PUD presented a perspective from the Mid-C's. He said Grant, with no fish barging option, would spill for juvenile migrants this spring, but the question was how long they could keep doing it and meet their load requirements. Other Mid-Cs spill much less than Grant for fish, which sends about half the river over its spillways every spring and summer.

Ancona said almost daily discussions are taking place with NMFS and BPA on the possibility of relaxing spill. He also noted that Grant had no intention of profiting from power generated from any reduced spill, but would develop a mitigation fund.

"At some point, relief from FERC will undoubtedly be necessary," he said. Council chair Cassidy said, after a review of pertinent facts, the NWPPC could weigh in with a recommendation to FERC on the matter.

Idaho Council member Jim Kempton said his state was running short as well, and no effort is underway to procure an extra million acre-feet in the upper Snake for flow augmentation, as environmental groups have recommended. Kempton said his state legislature just authorized the BiOp's annual 427 kcfs for flows, but the reality is that they will be lucky to come up with half of that. -- Bill Rudolph


This year's huge spring chinook run in the Columbia continues to stun biologists, who now say it may be coming in a bit early because of low river flows. The highest single day's count, so far, was April 11, when over 14,400 chinook were counted at Bonneville Dam. By April 11, the run was over 103,000 fish, just shy of one-third the total spring estimate. The past week saw three daily counts that were higher than the entire spring return of 1995 (10,192).

WDFW harvest manager Cindy LeFleur said in a normal year only about 8 percent of the run would have passed the dam by now, but the fish may be showing up early due to this year's low flows. If the run was on normal timing, she noted that it could possibly top 900,000 fish--a number far outside of anybody's ballpark estimate.

But the big run has put recreational fishermen firmly in seventh heaven, fishing the spring run for the first time in years. Harvest managers counted more than 2,000 boats in the lower Columbia last Saturday, with another 2,000 folks along the banks. LeFleur said that anglers had caught over 6,000 springers from April 1-9, keeping only fin-clipped hatchery fish--about 4,000--and releasing nearly 2,400 unclipped chinook, which could be wild ESA-listed stocks from either the Snake or upper Columbia.

The sporties are hampered by the fact that harvest managers estimate only 58 percent of the upriver run is marked, so undoubtedly, some released fish are of hatchery origin. ODFW's Steve King said he thought the recreational fishery would remain open until about April 15 before the 0.8 percent impact of the sport fishery on wild listed fish is likely to be reached. Overall, non-treaty fishermen are expected to have a 2 percent impact, including commercial catch and some experimental studies, while tribes will catch about 13 percent of the spring run.

CRITFC spokesperson Charles Hudson said the tribes' ceremonial fishery has about concluded and the platform subsistence fishery is presently underway, with the commercial fishery starting around April 20. The tribal harvest is expected to be about 46,000 fish, divided about equally between the commercial and subsistence-plus-ceremonial harvest. According to PIT-tag sampling (click on "Adult Returns" under Queries at website) of adults this week at Bonneville Dam's adult fish lab, many returning fish are heading for Idaho's Rapid River Hatchery, which will likely be swamped by next month. -B. R.


A lawsuit filed last October by irrigators and the city of Pasco against the state of Washington has been settled out of court. The irrigators and the city filed the action to break the logjam of unprocessed water rights in the Columbia Basin. Now the state Department of Ecology has promised to process 12 applications that have been on file since 1991. The agency also relaxed a state regulation that could have kept hundreds of Columbia Basin farmers from irrigating their crops this year.

The state has balked at processing new water rights, citing the federal "no net loss" water policy for the mainstem Columbia and the need to maintain instream flows for migrating salmon that are on the endangered species list. Washington's own Fish and Wildlife Department recommended against granting new permits that would cut flows for fish.

The irrigators have maintained that NMFS has never demonstrated a flow-survival relationship for migrating salmon, especially spring migrants. They have long pushed for changes that end spring flow augmentation and save water for summer migrating fish. But it remains to be seen if the state will buy up other rights to maintain the "no net loss" policy.

Consultant Darryll Olsen said DOE head Tom Fitzsimmons has told him "point blank" that the state is not willing to accept the federal biological opinion that augments flows for fish.

"The director agrees with us that the NMFS BiOp is not satisfactory," Olsen told NW Fishletter.

In an April 4 press release, Fitzsimmons said his agency was pleased that the agreement helps to break the processing logjam "while also acknowledging the need to maintain healthy flows in the river." His department will draft an interim rule by Sept. 30 that will govern how applications will be processed, addressing stream flow needs and explaining how water rights will be administered until a comprehensive strategy for managing the Columbia is developed. The Columbia-Snake Irrigators Association has now promised to take part in the process.

WA Gov. Gary Locke called the settlement good news. "I want the involvement of the irrigators, local communities, environmental organizations, hydropower producers, tribes and others in determining how best to manage the river system for all the competing interests," he said last week.

A comprehensive water policy bill supported by irrigators and the governor is making its way through the legislature; it passed the House yesterday and was headed for the Senate, where it is likely to pass.

Meanwhile, the DOE also announced the relaxation of a regulation that would have kept nearly 300 mainstem irrigators from pumping water out of the Columbia due to drought conditions facing the state this year. The 1980 regulation set a minimum flow of 60 MAF at The Dalles, a reaction to the 1977 drought year--when record low flows were set in the Columbia.

With this year's flow estimated at 56 MAF, the state warned irrigators March 7 that interruptible water rights, those issued after 1980, might be curtailed for a week at a time.

But Fitzsimmons used his agency's authority to temporarily reduce required minimum flows by 25 percent to keep the irrigators in business. According to consultant Olsen, the 300 permitees' peak withdrawals in July would account for less than one-half of a percent of the river's flow. If irrigators were curtailed, Olsen said the effect on flow would not be measurable. He pointed out that daily fluctuations in flow are 200 to 300 times greater than the 400 cfs the irrigators would be using.

"There's a lot of debate about what this small amount of water means to the health of the Columbia," said Fitzsimmons, "but there's no question at all that it means the difference between a break-even growing season versus bankruptcy for hundreds of farmers and the communities they support." -B. R.


Okanogan County commissioners announced late last month that they are pulling out of the two-year-long negotiations with the National Marine Fisheries Service over a proposed MOA on fish and flow issues for ESA-listed chinook and steelhead stocks.

In a March 20 letter to NMFS and the state Department of Ecology, the three commissioners said it wasn't the county's intent to terminate the MOA, but to defer it until NMFS "can successfully demonstrate, on a smaller scale, that it is able to reach a pragmatic agreement with water users on species conservation."

They said the basin's watershed planning unit has spent "untold hours" trying to negotiate an MOA that would integrate state law with the ESA, but an agreement has proven illusive, so the planners "must refocus their efforts on watershed planning required by state law."

Dick Ewing, volunteer lead for the planning unit, said it was likely the county will sue NMFS and USFWS over the issue. Okanogan County, two farmers and a ditch company filed an "intent to sue" notice, on Feb. 5, claiming that flows mandated by NMFS are biologically unjustified and violate state water rights.

A main sticking point in the negotiations is whether NMFS and USFWS would support local entities in court if they were sued by a third party over the adequacy of flows for fish.

The county still supports direct efforts involving NMFS and local water users, as well as development of new guidelines for irrigation management that have been produced by parties to the state's Ag-Fish-Water talks. But it said the success of any MOA that leads to a habitat conservation plan for the basin "depends of the ability of NMFS to complete the CIDMP [Comprehensive Irrigation District Management Plan] process through an agreement with water users that benefits fish and allows economic water use."

The county hopes the new process will develop a model for ESA compliance that will be used to build the trust needed for an MOA and HCP that local residents will support.

For now, county residents are skeptical and mistrustful of the NMFS process, said the commissioners, who were clear in their feelings as well. "Based on experience with the Early Winters and Skyline biological opinions," they said, "the County and many Methow Basin water users are certain that NMFS, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Forest Service have misinterpreted and misapplied the ESA in a way that will prevent successful agreements on habitat conservation planning for private property. If protected fish are to receive immediate and long-term benefits from habitat conservation, federal enforcement of the ESA must change to accommodate state water law and limits on federal authority." -B .R.

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