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[1] Feds Unveil Plan For Columbia Hydro System
[2] Power Planning Council Looks At Mid-C Spill Issues
[3] 27,000 Fish In One Day!
[4] Conservation Groups Threaten Lawsuits Over Flows
[5] Mike Field Says Goodbye To Power Council

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Federal agencies went public Friday the 13th with their draft plan for operating the hydro system in what is turning out to be one of the lowest water years on record. The plan contains no real surprises, as the agencies have been wrangling about priorities for weeks, both in public and private venues.

Largely as a legal nicety, BPA had to declare another power emergency to keep from spilling water at dams until the plan is adopted. The feds say that spill to aid fish passage over dams--if there is to be any this month--will be determined by the May final water forecast (due May 8), which will have to come in at 60 MAF or better.
This year's spring run has
become a spectator sport.

The latest forecasts have seesawed slightly below that--the May early bird forecast issued April 26 calls for a January-to-July water supply at The Dalles of 57.2 MAF, down .5 MAF from the April final, which was up 1.6 MAF from the previous prediction two weeks before that.

Just to maintain near-term power demands will require a 58.5 MAF final forecast, says the draft plan. That would include a 5 percent buffer for possible load loss, says the report, citing NWPPC analysis that concluded the region faces a 26 percent chance of not meeting power demand early next winter. The analysis also says that 1500 MW-months (approximately 1.5 MAF) of additional storage is necessary to minimize the probability of load loss.

BPA analysis has determined that it would have only a 13.5 percent chance of having zero cash reserves over the next 12 months, which the feds say "suggests the possibility that some reserves could be used this year to: (a) fund implementation of offset actions; (b) purchase power from extra-regional sources to reduce the amount of storage needed for next winter or to further reduce next year's loss of load probability."

That analysis assumes the Cal-ISO and the PX don't pay their bills, that BPA can use 4H10c credits to apply towards its Treasury payment, and a rate increase of 248 percent goes into effect for FY 2002.

As for the possibility of spilling water at federal dams this spring, the feds have prioritized the strategy: first at The Dalles, where turbine survival for juvenile fish seems to be poorest, on the order of 90 percent, then at Bonneville, John Day, McNary and Ice Harbor.

They have decided to transport up to 50 percent of the fish from McNary Dam this spring, to possibly help chinook and steelhead migrating out of the upper Columbia.

A maximum barging policy has already started in the lower Snake, where over 90 percent of the spring migrants will be barged downriver. Over 1.3 million juvenile steelhead and chinook were collected and barged by April 30.

With flows in the lower Snake expected to average only 50 kcfs this spring, the federal agencies are proposing to conduct a surging operation that might help juveniles move through the pool where they can be barged from the dam. The plan says Idaho Power expects to be compensated for any water used to aid this strategy.

Smolt numbers improved dramatically at Lower Granite last weekend as flows moved above 50 kcfs, easing fears that the young fish would have a tough time getting through the reservoir. Earlier reports included a Seattle Times article that said some smolts were actually swimming backwards and getting lost, according to ODFW manager Christine Mallette.

Surging is a controversial strategy that has some fish advocates apoplectic--both state and tribal fish agencies did not support the idea at the April 13 meeting, mainly because it might use Dworshak water they want to save for later in the season.

Environmental groups are still calling for more water from Idaho. But with the Snake at Weiser only expected to be running at 33 percent of normal this spring, others wonder where the extra flow will come from, especially since Dworshak Reservoir on the Clearwater River has only about a two-thirds probability of refilling to elevation 1580 by June 30. Above Lower Granite, firm BuRec sources will provide less than 60 KAF this year, with the possibility of another 50 KAF. Idaho Power has acquired energy associated with 109 KAF of diversion.

PIT-tagging by NMFS researchers in 1994, when spring flows were in the 50 kcfs range, showed juvenile chinook survival through the pool in the 90-percent range, but flows went up considerably that year after May 1. This year flows aren't expected to peak until after the middle of the month, possibly reaching over 100 kcfs by then.

Lower river Indian tribes had three issues, all concerning the ongoing chinook harvest now in progress. They called for spill at Bonneville Dam because without it, they claimed eddies weren't forming near fishing platforms that moved adult salmon close to them. And they wanted lower Columbia pools to stay within 1.5-foot fluctuations to keep tribal set netters happy. They also wanted the system to be operated in a way that kept platforms from going high and dry.

The Corps' Doug Arndt, chief of the agency's Fish Management Division, said it was more than likely that the low flow conditions played a large part in the eddy formation because the platforms were 1.5 miles upstream from the dam. He said Bonneville Pool would stay within the elevation constraints requested by tribes, but upstream pools would be more flexible. However, it was reported that BPA was prepared to pay for lumber to help tribal members construct new platforms over the river.

The federal plan calls for summer flow augmentation from reservoirs to BiOp elevations by Aug. 31, but "these levels may be modified as necessary to store additional water that is needed to achieve the forecasted insufficiency criterion." The feds have also proposed a decision process for summer spill at lower Columbia dams that depends on volume forecasts and available storage.

By August, if actual volume is above 55.5 MAF, they would consider spill if some water were available. But some sources close to the negotiations say that with the hydro system operating so close to the edge of reliability, the summer spill question is a major inconsistency in the plan. Feds were taking comments on the plan until April 20.

Playing the water supply game conservatively may be the most prudent way to go, but some fish managers still support spill and gamble on a wetter year next year. However, University of Washington climate researcher Nate Mantua told NW Fishletter that some predictors are pointing to an El Nino that may show up by next June, while others are not. He gives it about a 30 percent chance of happening. But even if it does, Mantua says the typical El Nino only reduces precipitation by 10 percent.

Federal execs took public comment on the plan at their April 27 meeting in Portland. They were originally expected to sign off on it by the end of the month, but they have set a May 17 deadline for finalizing the plan. Some decisions on spill could be made later this week.

They heard from Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, who delivered the same message he told Power Planning Council members in Spokane April 25. He (see story 2) pushed for more spill at lower Columbia dams, citing the need to aid non-listed stocks in the mid-Columbia. He told the group that BPA had abandoned its moral and legal obligations to aid fish, a point contested by acting BPA administrator Steve Wright, who indicated that his agency may buy some power in order to spill water at dams. -Bill Rudolph


The Northwest Power Planning Council met in Spokane last week to finalize recommendations for hydro operations this spring, just a day before feds were scheduled to hear the last chance for public comment about their own tentative plan.

The Council also heard a preliminary staff report on biological effects from spill reduction at Mid-Columbia dams and voted to send a letter to FERC to let it know the Council is looking into spill issues at the Mid-C's and would develop draft recommendations by its next meeting in May. The feds, who were planning to have their plan completed by the end of April, have now moved their deadline to May 17.
Quiet spillway at Bonneville Dam.

Council chair Larry Cassidy had already sent an April 10 letter to FERC outlining the Council's preliminary recommendations for hydro operation in the federal system, which included little or no spill for migrating fish. Stressing the "severity of the power situation," Cassidy also asked the agency to "give expedited consideration to reducing, modifying or eliminating spill at FERC-licensed projects on the Columbia."

His letter was responding to a call from FERC that requested comments on removing obstacles to increased electrical generation in the West--a policy that reportedly came from the White House itself.

The Mid-C dams spill varying amounts of water in the spring and summer to help migrating salmon, including listed spring chinook and steelhead. Grant County PUD spills by far the most; more than 50 percent in the spring at Priest Rapids Dam, and a new MOA that's nearly complete calls for even more in the future. Grant says 15 percent of its generating capacity has been lost to fish enhancement measures that cost its ratepayers 20 cents on every dollar billed. Chelan and Douglas PUDs spill less, as part of a habitat conservation plan developed over several years that NMFS has yet to approve.

Grant PUD director Don Godard said his two dams will spill 1500 MW-months of energy this year, but he "will not propose changes unless the region comes to consensus that spill could be put to better use."

Representatives of Puget Sound Energy attended the meeting as well, urging the Council to get involved with the Mid-C spill issue.

Consultant Jim Litchfield, who represents the state of Montana at several technical and policy forums was blunt. "You will not get an operator to suggest change to a FERC license," he told Council members. He pointed out that 1500 MW-months is the figure that the NWPPC's own analysis figured is the amount, if stored, that could reduce loss-of-load probability to 20 percent.

Public Power Council's Rob Walton said no Mid-C spill this year would improve regional reliability. He also mentioned that fish agencies who don't support reduced spill because of concerns for increased mortality for juvenile fish have boosted harvest levels from 9 to 15 percent of the spring chinook run that's in progress.

Another long-time observer didnít think FERC staff would eventually OK any changes. Rather, he thought any reduction in mid-C spill would have to come via an emergency order from the Secretary of Energy.

Fish agencies and tribes have already gone on record against Chelan County PUD's proposal to reduce spill at its Rock Island facility from 31 kcfs to 20 percent of river flow, and making modifications to keep juvenile survival at 95 percent, along with eliminating all spring spill at Rocky Reach. In an April 24 letter to Chelan, WDFW director Jeff Koenings called the proposed actions "major breaches of the stewardship responsibility."

Without the fish agencies and tribes on board, it's unlikely there will develop any regional consensus for reduced spill at mid-C projects. The agencies already have criticized the Council's analysis of fish survival with no-spill options in the federal system, calling it too optimistic.

Council staffer Bruce Suzumoto has completed a analysis of mid-C fish survival using NMFS' own model, as he did previously with survival in the federal system. In Spokane, he reported that with no-spill at the mid-C dams and one-half of the fish reaching McNary being barged, the results showed a survival change below Bonneville Dam that ranged from minus 6 percent with a low factor for barged fish survival (D) to a gain of about 12 percent using a higher D.

Council members heard from ODFW's Ron Boyce, who said Suzumoto's use of the NMFS model over-estimated fish survivals at the mainstem federal dams in this drought year. But comments by fisheries consultant Steve Cramer, solicited by Litchfield, suggested a change of focus is needed from the models to evidence from more research.

"Some scientists will argue that you should not take risks with no-spill for ESA-listed species," Cramer wrote in an April 25 memo, "and others will argue that you should not risk untested low-flow strategies when the proven effectiveness of barging is available. Our problem is that evidence can be assembled in reasonable fashion to defend either viewpoint. It is time to put the debate to a test!"

He also noted that a recent analysis (Bickford and Skalski, 2000) that looked at juvenile salmonid studies in the Columbia Basin over the last 25 years found no significant relationship between project survivals at the mid-C's and either flow or probability of spillway passage. "This finding," concludes Cramer, "indicates that spill is not causing a dramatic change in smolt survival through the mid-Columbia."

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber spoke before the Council April 25 and told members their recommendations "fall short." He called for a bigger effort to find more water to augment flows and provide spill, and said BPA should mitigate for the effects of the drought. He also said BPA's power marketing process had to be overhauled and his staff would present a proposal dealing with the issue by June 1.

The Council spent the next morning wordsmithing its recommendations to reflect more of Kitzhaber's concerns, but Oregon's Eric Bloch didn't make much headway. Most of the original recommendations stayed intact--they pretty much mirrored federal proposal that included the call for maximized barging of fish, but a new paragraph was added that called for limited spill at lower Columbia dams and requested feds, states and tribes to work with the Council to develop a plan on how to provide some spill and maintain electrical reliability--"provided that the spill can be accomplished in a way that maximizes fish benefits and minimizes power impacts."

The Council also called for creating a mitigation fund from any revenues from decreased spill, along with buying back more power from irrigators and others. They called upon BPA to buy more instream water rights to provide needed flows. They also said the Council staff would add information to its issue paper on spill impacts to include the Mid-C projects and would notify FERC of the addendum and a one-week expedited comment period. They were prepared to develop draft recommendations at their May meeting, maybe even sooner.

But letting a little water over dams may be worse than none at all. In his memo, consultant Cramer cautioned "that there is some evidence that small amounts of spill may attract predators to the spill area." He said studies in 1994, a low flow year, found large numbers of pike-minnow in the tailrace of John Day dam below the spillway, "and a relatively high number of their stomachs with smolts." -B. R.



Harvest managers who had originally thought this year's record spring chinook run was peaking early got a big surprise. After counting more than 17,000 chinook on April 13, they were prepared to settle in with their original spring forecast of 364,000. But the April 18 daily count climbed to 27,000--bringing the total to nearly 226,000 fish by then--about 10 times the 10-year average.

As the fish poured in, the sport fishery closed April 18, with anglers keeping about 22,500 hatchery chinook, while tribal fishers opened their commercial fishery April 17 for three days. And judging by PIT tags read at Bonneville, there were still thousands of Idaho fish on their way home.
Some tribal fishermen at Cascade Locks
sold directly to the public.

Harvest managers soon revised their estimate up to 440,000 fish, a move that gave both tribal harvesters and sports fishermen another crack at the run. The tribes got another 1 percent boost, and sports fishermen were allowed back on the river April 25-29 for another shot at clipped-fin chinook. But by the end of the month, harvest managers reduced their estimate of the spring run to 400,000 fish.

Tribal fishermen finished their second fishing period last Saturday, catching more than 17,000 springers, about the same number as they harvested in their first three-day opener in mid-April. CRITFC spokesman Charles Hudson said about 500 nets were in the water for the second period.

Tribes still have about 7,000 chinook allotted to them after the revised forecast gave them a 53,000-fish share of the run, which includes ceremonial and subsistence platform fishing. Managers were meeting today to decide how the tribes would harvest the rest of their allocation.

As of April 30, over 305,000 chinook had passed Bonneville Dam and more than 70,000 fish had been counted over Lower Granite Dam. Last year, 5,691 fish had been counted by now at Granite--in 1995, the nadir for the run, only 21 fish had been tallied by this date. Wild fish should fare well this year as well. Regional biologists' rule of thumb holds that about 20 percent of the run is made up of wild fish.

More than 100,000 spring chinook, both hatchery and wild, were originally estimated to make it to Idaho this year. Already, over 100,000 have been counted at Ice Harbor, the lowest dam on the Snake.

The huge run has let fish managers open a sports fishery in the Snake this year. Slated to begin May 1 and last for a month, it will target clipped-fin hatchery fish with a daily bag limit of two.

A WDFW press release pointed to good outflow conditions in 1998 and 1999 and improved ocean rearing conditions for the abundant run, but recent studies of barged v. inriver survivals suggest that the outflows had little to do with it. The 1999 migration year was a pretty average flow year. However, over 70 percent of the spring chinook coming out of the Snake were barged that year.

Initial PIT-tag analysis from the 1995 and 1998 migration show that fish transported after May 1 by barge have twice the survivals of inriver migrating fish (See NW Fishletter 114). Smolt-to adult-returns could be 2 percent or better this year, about 10 times higher than just a few years ago.

Another factor for the huge run into the Snake can be attributed to higher production at contributing hatcheries in recent times due to improved returns. In 1997, only 920,000 hatchery fish were released, in 1998, that rose to 3.4 million smolts. In 1999, around 10 million young fish were released--the lion's share returning as adults this year. In 2000, hatchery production dropped to about 6.4 million. -B. R.


Conservation and commercial fishing groups have sent "intent to sue" letters to federal authorities, hoping to boost flows in the Columbia and Snake rivers. The letters say that actions by the Bureau of Reclamation "contribute to low stream flow conditions" and the failure to augment flows violates the ESA because target levels established in the 2000 Biological Opinion will not be met.

The April 19 letters cite the recent case in the Klamath Basin where the Ninth Circuit court found that BuRec was operating its projects without completing consultation over ESA issues and stopped the agency from delivering water from its projects whenever flows dipped below a threshold level.

The groups say the agency is committing the same violation in the Snake and Columbia because BuRec has not formally completed consultation with NMFS on its Snake operations.

"The BOR can cure these ESA violations only by immediately completing formal consultation with NMFS and obtaining an incidental take statement," the groups say, and they will sue within 60 days if these actions aren't taken. The letters were sent by Trout Unlimited, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, the Institute for Fisheries Resources and Idaho Rivers United. Similar letters were sent to the Department of Commerce, NMFS and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission which governs operations of Idaho Power's Hells Canyon complex of dams.

The conservation groups also alleged that NMFS' failure to yet issue a biological opinion on Idaho Power's Snake River dams (the process began three and a half years ago, they say) "constitutes an agency action unreasonably delayed under section 706(1) of the Administrative Procedures Act ("APA")." -B. R.


Idaho Power Planning Council member Mike Field has left his position there to become Idaho State Director of Rural Development, a federal position he held under President George Bush until 1993. He then joined Sen. Larry Craig's (R-ID) office before he was named to the Power Council.

Field worked the fish side of the Council, and took an active interest in both scientific and policy matters relating to the ESA and his state's salmon and steelhead stocks. He was a strong advocate for grounding policy in "the best, available science," a stance that often put him at odds with his own state's Fish and Game Department.

Since Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne has not yet named someone to replace Field, the state's other member, relative newcomer Jim Kempton, will temporarily handle both fish and power duties. -B. R.

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