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[1] BPA Ups Spill Ante Over Memorial Day Weekend
[2] Congressmen Hear Testimony On Drought, Power and Fish
[3] No Decision From FERC Over Possible Changes To Mid-C Spill Regime
[4] Corps Of Engineers Gives Judge New ROD In CWA Lawsuit
[5] Smolts Show At McNary, But Spill Kills Barging Study
[6] 400 Scientists Discuss Ecosystems And Salmon Nutrients

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BPA Acting Administrator Steve Wright announced today that the hydro system will continue spilling water to aid fish passage at lower Columbia dams for at least another week, at the same levels announced May 25 when two more dams were added to the original two-dam spill strategy.

Wright said BPA's initial assessment makes the agency feel comfortable with continuing spill at current levels for another week, with a total spill quantity of around 600 MW-months. About half of that has occurred already, he said, and getting to the full amount would involve spilling until mid-June. But resolving the reliability analyses by different agencies will determine whether 600 MW-months is "the right number."

Wright said both the Corps of Engineers and BPA were working to resolve the Power Planning Council's updated reliability analysis with their own. Wright characterized the NWPPC analysis as showing evidence for more regional power reliability than previously thought, largely from load reductions and short-term diesel generation that has been put in place.

Wright also said his agency's analysis of its financial reliability is still being reworked, but "energy prices have dropped dramatically in the past three weeks," he told state and tribal entities on a June 1 conference call.

As for reliability goals for next winter, Wright said "carryover storage or water in the system going into next winter is the big driver of reliability, so we need to resolve how the Council is handling that relative to our own way of doing it."

He said Grand Coulee refill is the major leading indicator of the water supply situation. If the refill to elevation 1280 feet shows signs of stalling, "we would want to reconvene and reconsider the spill regime."

The latest water supply forecast released May 31 calls for a Jan-July water supply of 56.1 MAF, or 53 percent of average at The Dalles. That was down another 400 KAF from the previous forecast.

Federal executives first decided to boost spill in the lower Columbia River before the Memorial Day weekend, citing signs of improved reliability in the region's power supply. Wright told federal execs May 25 that said he saw a preliminary updated power supply analysis from the NWPPC that indicated "the region is in better shape from a reliability perspective than we had thought previously--mostly just because of the actions taken by people, the load reductions we've able to accomplish, the aluminum buyouts, the irrigation buyouts, etc., as well as the generators that are being put in place across the region."

On that basis, he said the agency was trying to redo the analysis for criteria of both near- and long-term reliability for the operating plan--"and financial"--but that it wouldn't be completed until the middle of the week, after BPA digested the update from the Power Planning Council, which announced its new analysis on the afternoon of the 25th.

With flows dropping that weekend and about 50 percent of the spring migration past McNary Dam, NMFS policymaker Brian Brown proposed additional spill at night at John Day and McNary dams, in addition to what was occurring already at The Dalles and Bonneville. He proposed 12-hour nightly spills beginning that Friday at John Day (37 kcfs) and every other night at McNary (30 kcfs), where fish are being barged on alternate days, "through next Tuesday or so"--when the analysis was expected to be completed. The addition of McNary spill ended an evaluation of a spring barging strategy at the dam, because too few PIT-tagged fish for a statistically valid study were expected to be collected after the spill began (See story 5).

A proposed spill swap with Grant PUD--the reason BPA began spilling water in the first place, with the hope that the Mid-C would pick up its load later this summer--was barely mentioned; it was slated for FERC's Wednesday agenda, but was scrubbed at the last minute for a later date. The Yakama and Umatilla Tribes, along with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, had filed a motion with FERC against the swap. American Rivers was also against the change in operations. Grant earlier said it won't reduce spill unless it has regional consensus.

While the feds were announcing the added spill, NWPPC members were getting briefed on the Council's updated power supply analysis. After the briefing, Montana Council member Stan Grace said there were still "way too many uncertainties" about next winter's power reliability to be spilling more water at this time.

NWPPC spokesman John Harrison said the new analysis showed that summer reliability is up for the region, but next winter is still "iffy." He said the probability of loss of load next winter has been reduced from 20 percent to 17 percent and may go down to 12 percent if 1500 MW is available from Canada. But the improved outlook for power has not come without costs, Harrison added: more air pollution from diesel generators (adding 480 MW), job losses from the aluminum industry (reducing load by 3300 MW), and more fish mortality from reduced spill in the hydro system. He said the Council analysis had pegged those fish losses, on average, at about 2 percent per stock. -Bill Rudolph


A House subcommittee heard testimony May 19 from a potpourri of power people on the drought and its effects on electrical reliability and salmon, but fish was a side dish to the larger questions of potential blackouts and energy costs. Politicians heard that things will eventually get better, but the forum gave Democrats a chance to beat up the Bush Administration over its hands-off energy policy towards California. Midway through the three-hour session, a group of aluminum workers and their families, who had been demonstrating outside the Tacoma Municipal Building, joined the proceedings.

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA), who chairs the House Subcommittee on Water and Power, told NW Fishletter that his district, which includes major population centers like Riverside, CA, has been forced to cope with blackouts that have confused and worried his constituents--especially elderly residents with medical equipment requiring a steady supply of electricity.

"I'm frustrated because people aren't aware of the crisis," said Adam Smith (D-WA) in his opening remarks, noting that a principal reason for the hearing was to increase public visibility of the power crunch. He said it was time for FERC policymakers and Congress "to step up to the plate."

Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) said there were two things that brought them together--one was an act of God--the drought--and the other was an Act of Congress--the 1992 federal law that deregulated wholesale electricity markets. He said our electrical system now "resembles India or some other struggling nation."

But some news was good, comparatively speaking. In response to a question from Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA), BPA Acting Administrator Steve Wright said a combination of efforts to reduce load and vulnerability to the wholesale market has his agency aiming for a 100 percent rate increase next fall rather than the 250 percent boost that was originally contemplated.

Over the long term, Wright said his agency had purchased 84 MW of wind and geothermal energy, with 560 MW of wind under development and 25 wind proposals totaling 2600 MW on the table after BPA requested 1000 MW worth of wind proposals. He said requests for integration studies have been received for another 27,000 MW of new generation, but he cautioned that the region must make major investments in the transmission system to handle the new generation.

Over the short term, Wright said BPA wouldn't compromise Northwest reliability and fish needs to help California, but an energy agreement with the Golden State was being crafted that would benefit the region and give the Northwest back more power than it sends south.

A second panel included Tacoma Power's Steve Klein. "Why does DC think the energy crisis only affects California?" he asked the politicians. Klein explained how his utility has been devastated by the drought and the wholesale market--causing huge rate increases for both residential and business users--43 percent and 75 percent, respectively.

Brett Wilcox, president of Golden Northwest Aluminum, said BPA had "tools" to reduce electrical prices, but refused to use them--like supporting resource development at companies like his own, and instituting tiered rates for BPA's utility customers. He admitted, however, that BPA could not practically adopt them for DSI customers.

Ray Lepp, VP of Seattle-based Birmingham Steel, said his company would go out of business if the two-tiered rate proposal was adopted, since it's already saddled with big rate increases from Seattle City Light.

The issue of tiered rates raised Rep. Peter DeFazio's (D-OR) ire. "I'm bitterly opposed to tiered rates," he said.

DeFazio also wanted to know how the region could be assured that future producers would produce power "when they don't have to," and break the boom and bust situation that exists now. "Is volatility a substitute for reliability?" he asked NWPPC member Tom Karier. "What's keeping us from going back to negotiations?"

"Congress..." Karier replied.

Others testified that fish might not be as bad off as some think. University of Washington professor Jim Anderson said spill at lower Columbia dams was having little impact on migrating salmon. He told the politicians that transporting the fish downstream was the hydro system's most effective strategy. "For every 10 fish that come back that migrated inriver, 15 come back that were barged," he said.

With the understanding that the ocean is the largest productive driver in the system, Anderson also said the hydro system could be operated with more flexibility.

The Public Power Council's Rob Walton said the spill program in progress could significantly reduce the reliability of the Northwest's power supply for a small benefit to salmon. Walton quoted a 1994 report by the NMFS-appointed Snake River Salmon Recovery Team, which said that no one was in charge of the effort--either to save salmon or manage the entire system. Walton expanded that notion. "No one is in charge of keeping the lights on," he told the politicians. He also noted that the region was supporting two strategies at once--with NMFS managing for small, wild populations, while fish agencies and tribes supported harvest-boosting strategies like hatcheries and other fish supplementation efforts.

CRITFC secretary Randy Settler said treaty obligations require the region to manage the hydro system to save salmon first and provide flow and spill levels outlined in the tribal plan, along with turning over unexpended funds from BPA's previous F&W MOA to tribes and regional fish and wildlife agencies.

"The real problem," said Settler, "is the management decisions made and actions taken that are putting the long-term viability of the salmon resource in jeopardy."

Calvert wanted to know if the salmon would be "hammered" if the hydro system generated more power. Anderson said spring runs would likely be OK, but summer runs were iffy, because of a lack of good information. "Scientists will give you mixed answers."

DeFazio said this was just a kickoff hearing for further investigation. "We've set Northwesterners one against the other--if wholesale power was reasonable, we could get through this." -B. R.


Although there were no guarantees that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would act quickly, Grant PUD's request for a modification to its spill program was initially on the agency's May 30 agenda, but was pulled just before the meeting. A flurry of last minute interventions may be responsible for FERC's decision to remove the Grant request from last week's agenda, said Grant spokesman Lon Topaz. He also pointed out that the Commission staff may have needed more time to add data to its order, which could already be written.

On the other hand, Topaz said FERC staff may have decided there is no pressing need to make a decision, since BPA doesn't seem to need any spill swap with the mid-C utility this month after all. Topaz said BPA told Grant that it wouldn't need any June swap if water behind Grand Coulee reached an elevation of 1260 feet by June 1. It was actually 10 feet higher than that by last Thursday.

FERC staffer Celeste Miller said the Commission does not say why items are removed from the agenda, but she noted that the commissioners could act on Grant's request "at any time," without meeting formally. FERC meets again June 13.

But if BPA gets more power from Grant this summer, the PUD would have to amend current operations to curtail its own spill program. The PUD sent a letter to FERC May 9 requesting a temporary variance to suspend spill at Priest Rapids through the summer fish migration season. In a quick turnaround, FERC issued a 14-day public comment notice the next day. FERC had previously issued a call from the region to solicit ideas on how to generate more power during the energy crisis on the West Coast.

But the utility said it would not reduce or stop spill unless it was able to get concurrence from government agencies and tribes. Grant said there were several management options for water that would otherwise be spilled--"depending on how the benefits are directed to address the region's salmon and power problems."

Topaz pointed out that regional concurrence is unlikely for changes to Grant operations this summer, but that FERC could still order changes without all parties in the region signing off on them. BPA had filed a motion in support of the spill swap. On May 31, BPA spokesman Mike Hansen said his agency is still trying to figure out some way to make it happen. Topaz said if BPA can get the tribes to go along with it, that would be great; but for now, "we think it's a dead deal." -B. R


The Corps of Engineers has submitted a Record of Decision to Oregon District Court Judge Helen Frye that it says satisfies the court's request for a new decision that replaces the 1998 ROD. The action is the latest move in the Clean Water Act lawsuit filed against the Corps of Engineers by the National Wildlife Federation and other groups that alleges the Corps violated dissolved gas and temperature standards in its operation of the four lower Snake River dams.

The new ROD is the Corps' official sign-off on the new hydro BiOp issued by NMFS last December. "The Corps will seek to harmonize operations to comply with both the ESA recommendations (determined by NMFS and USFWS) and the applicable water quality standards," it reads in part. The Corps also says it is committed to working with the states and EPA in the development of "clear, implementable" Total Maximum Daily Loads for dissolved gas and temperature.

The new ROD contains an appendix that clearly shows the agency considered the CWA in making operational decisions, a consideration that Judge Frye said was lacking in its previous RODs. In the new document, the Corps says there were no operational changes it could make at the dams to "significantly" decrease water temperatures, but it was committed to keep working with the states and EPA and to studying the issue." The existence of the dams may cause a temporal shift in the temperature curve over natural conditions, but in our opinion, this has not affected the number or severity of exceedances to any significant degree," the Corps states in Appendix C.

Environmental groups were upset at the Corps' filing and said it would not go unchallenged. Judge Frye did not even hint at when she would announce her decision. -Bill Rudolph


Fish managers have been wringing their hands for the past few weeks over this year's juvenile salmon migration, as the young fish seemed bottled up in the Mid-Columbia by low flows. Only a few hundred thousand had made it as far as McNary Dam by the time the managers met to commiserate at the May 23 TMT meeting in Portland.

"It's like watching a traffic accident," said WDFW's Jim Neilsen.

But it wasn't all bad news. NMFS' Paul Wagner said collection of smolts on the lower Snake was "within the realm of expectations," and that juvenile numbers were improving at McNary as well.

Others said if the juvenile spring chinook didn't get past McNary by June 6, they would be "toast," though steelhead could hang around in the reservoir for an entire year before migrating if need be. "All indications are the fish are not coming out of the mid-C's this year," said one.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the ocean. Juvenile fish numbers skyrocketed at McNary, with passage index numbers jumping from 67,000 on May 23 to 194,000 a couple of days later. The upshot was a big boost for the every-other-day barging strategy at McNary.

By May 25, only 314,000 chinook smolts had been collected at the dam and 131,000 barged. Five days later, however, the collected total was up to 1.5 million fish, with about 700,000 rounded up for the barge trip below Bonneville Dam, and the rest returned to the river.

Barging Study Sinks

Unfortunately, the 12-hour every-other-day spill at McNary that BPA announced last Friday will make a transport evaluation impossible to complete, according to NMFS policymaker Jim Ruff, who said there won't be enough PIT-tagged fish from the Mid-Columbia PUDs' survival study available for collection with the spill strategy in place.

Without spill, Ruff said about 50 percent of the tagged fish were being detected at McNary, barely what NMFS scientists figured they needed for a valid study. After the decision to barge spring fish from McNary was made, the federal agency used the mid-C fish because it said it did not have enough time to tag its own fish for the evaluation. NMFS had signed on with the spring barging scenario with caveats, and one was that a transport evaluation from the dam be conducted to get survival data in an extremely low flow year. Ruff said NMFS had collected about 4,000 fish for the barge ride by the time spill started, and needed about 20,000 to complete the study.

Ruff said the Mid-C's pulled their fish out of the transport study after the spill began, citing the need for getting enough of them downstream to be detected at John Day Dam to keep their original survival study on course. With fewer entering the barges than anticipated, mid-C managers didn't want them wasted on a study that wouldn't be valid.

But Grant PUD biologist Stuart Hammond said part of the study's original criteria included a 50 percent detection rate at McNary. "NMFS immediately assumed there were not enough fish," Hammond said, noting that through May 28, the detection rate was about 59 percent, though late releases had been a bit lower, around 45 percent. He said the feds went into the study knowing the criteria, and had even analyzed what would happen if the collection stopped, then began again a week later. That too, would compromise the evaluation, Hammond said, because most of the run was expected to be over.

Few were aware that the study had ended, when contacted by NW Fishletter. Consultant Jim Litchfield, who represents the state of Montana at the TMT and IT forums, said if he'd known, he would have brought the subject up at the TMT conference call last Wednesday. Power Planning Council staffer Bruce Suzumoto, whose own analysis has shown marginal biological benefits for the spring spill effort, said he was disappointed that the region won't be collecting an important piece of data to help judge the value of spring barging from McNary, a subject of long arguments and little data over the years.

Insiders said there were questions of how well those fish represented true spring chinook, since the tagged fish were summer chinook, raised in a hatchery for a year. They usually migrate at a more leisurely pace than springers, and do not collect at rates as high as spring chinook. But Grant biologist Hammond said NMFS had plenty of time to tag their own fish upriver from the dam to allay such concern, though he admitted if he was "in their shoes," he might have done the same thing--that is, use young fish already tagged to do double duty.

But the migrating spring run seems no worse for wear, though their trip through the mid-Columbia is taking about twice as long as in a normal flow year. Corps of Engineers biologist Dave Hurson said the young fish compared well to previous years at McNary, with a 3 percent to 5 percent descaling rate, similar to years when flows were much higher.

Grant PUD biologist Joe Lukas said it was likely the boosted flows got the fish moving. He believes flows were increased to pick up the 1200-MW load from the refueling shutdown of the region's lone nuke plant at Hanford. That's partially true, said one insider, who noted that BPA had not contracted to purchase all the power to make up for the shutdown. But he said quick snowmelt, especially from tributaries below Grand Coulee had a lot to do with boosting flows.

Meanwhile, the spring run from Idaho is nearly completed, where the maxed out barging policy in the lower Snake has allowed the Corps of Engineers to transport about 2 million spring chinook and 6 million steelhead down the mainstem Columbia below Bonneville Dam. The strategy only encountered one major glitch. On May 19, two of the Corps' newest barges had to release their fish above Ice Harbor Dam when outlets became plugged with juvenile lamprey. About 360,000 fish were released, mostly steelhead. An emergency six-hour spill was instituted at Ice Harbor to help the juveniles get by the dam. -B. R.


Speakers at a recent conference on Restoring Nutrients To Salmonid Ecosystems believe more salmon should be allowed to survive through spawning if the Northwest is to improve the productivity of its watersheds, both for salmon and other wildife. Over four hundred scientists attended the April meeting, jointly presented by the American Fisheries Society and the Canadian Aquatic Resources Section in Eugene, Oregon.

Washington state DNR biologist Jeff Cederholm was perhaps more direct than others in calling for greater salmon spawner abundance. "As far as I'm concerned, we shouldn't be fishing salmon at all," Cederholm said during the three-day confab. "It's an ethical issue for biologists--we should stop all fishing and we should not eat salmon."

Consultant Jim Lichatowich said that the abundance of salmon is just eight percent of historical run size. The historic reconstructed run size for Oregon, Washington and California represented 150 to 250 million kilograms of salmon flesh deposited in rivers, compared to the 11 million to13 million kilograms today. "Fisheries management did play a major role in creating this nutrient deficit," said Lichatowich, "and hatcheries eliminate natural variation as they seek to stabilize the supply of fish to fisheries."

Lichatowich also supported cuts in catch. "We should reduce the harvest on native salmon until we have some evidence that there is recovery taking place."

ODFW harvest manager Steve King said the desire to protect native salmon has limited fisheries to their lowest levels in history. For example, the Oregon coastal natural coho harvest impact in 2001 is 7.4 percent, down from about 70 percent when the coho were first listed under the ESA.

"We need to make substantial changes in the way we view fish management," said J.H. Michael of WDFW's Hatcheries Division. "Fish management must be within the context of ecological health," he said. "Rather than the best science, we use the best available politics to structure our fisheries." Another speaker suggested managing salmon for their benefit on multiple food webs.

John Stockner of Ecologic Ltd. of West Vancouver, British Columbia spoke on nutrients in watersheds, saying that pollution control is linear and treated as having no value. It is exported through modern waste treatment systems when it should be recycled the way salmon recycle nutrients. "Change our perception of nutrient enrichment from one of pollution to one of restoration," he suggested.

"Why are we paying fertilizer companies to put phosphorus (P) back into our streams?" Stockner asked. Each log truck exports 200 kilograms of phosphorus to the mill, taking it out of the system. Which is better, salmon or engineered P, he asked--and then answered. "Salmon are better because they help increase biological diversity. The salmon support eagles and bears among other organisms in watershed ecology."

Bob Bilby of the Weyerhaeuser Company has conducted studies of stream enrichment with salmon carcasses since the 1980s to determine their effect on nutrient load and the biological response. He found a dramatic response from juvenile salmonids. Both 0-age and 1+ age steelhead increased 50-and 80-fold, respectively, with the addition of salmon carcasses to streams. They ate both carcass flesh and eggs. The carcasses also increased the number of aquatic insects, providing a lasting benefit to the juvenile fish.

Simply by increasing carcass numbers, Bilby said the growth rate for juvenile fish increased. He pointed out that research has shown that larger juvenile coho salmon also better survive overwintering, both in streams and the ocean.

"Escapement goals do not account for nutrient enrichment health of the watershed," he noted. When asked about the adequate carcass loading levels for coho salmon, he said, " 200 per mile of stream." This corresponds to a coho spawner escapement goal in Oregon streams of 42 fish per mile, a spawner abundance standard rarely found in Northwest streams.

Bob Buckman, a district fish manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, presented information about carcass enrichment in coastal streams. In recent years, chinook and coho salmon have comprised an estimated 83 percent and 13 percent of carcass biomass, respectively, while human-placed carcasses from hatcheries have comprised about 3 percent. He estimated that in Oregon, about 500 pounds of carcasses are deposited annually per mile of stream.

Following Bilby's research, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife decided to place excess hatchery salmon in streams. On average, about 100 fish per mile are placed in stream reaches where there is a least a moderate abundance of rearing juvenile salmonids. Since some of Oregon's larger streams have high summer temperatures and low flows, they are not productive salmon habitat. The primary habitat resides higher in the watershed, and it is in these reaches that stream enrichment from salmon carcasses will do the most good.

Two Oregon studies Buckman reviewed did not show a direct link between salmon survival or growth and carcass enrichment. In one stream, Tenmile Creek, a carcass-poor stream on the central coast, the addition of large wood debris has improved the production of steelhead smolts. In another stream, the coho egg-to-smolt survival has averaged over 8 percent, but the smolt-to-adult survival has been poor, averaging under 2 percent. For this stream, "Freshwater productivity related to reduced carcass abundance does not appear to be the primary problem," Buckman said.

Buckman pointed out that while nutrient enrichment of streams from salmon carcasses is important in Oregon waters, it is not as important as it appears to be in more northern waters, which tend to be more nutrient impoverished. He recommended that watershed conditions, such as large wood, need to be improved as well, so that nutrients can be retained in the system to benefit salmon production. He stressed there is a need to increase the number of spawners and to maintain the diversity of species and life history so that watersheds can be naturally enriched.

Spawner abundance, ocean productivity and stream health are related and affect salmon abundance. Bruce Ward, a research scientist with British Columbia Fisheries, said that on the Keogh River, "Low escapements have reduced the number of smolts to lower than seen in the 1980s, even with stream fertilization and the addition of stream structure. The most rapid population rebuilding includes habitat restoration, nutrient enrichment and hatchery supplementation using native broodstocks."

Information was also provided on the value of salmon nutrients to terrestrial species such as eagles, otter and Sitka spruce. T. Reimchen, Department of Biology, University of Victoria, British Columbia, said that 75 percent of the nitrogen in old Sitka spruce was due to salmon. These salmon entered the food web when bears carried carcasses into the woods.

Another speaker, K. Kavanagh from the University of Idaho, pointed out that older trees were more enriched with salmon-derived nutrients than younger trees, showing the effect of salmon decline. In Idaho, wild salmon are at just one percent of historic abundance, which has had an effect on nutrient delivery to these watersheds.

"Salmon are in trouble and the nutrient link to salmon restoration needs to be brought out of the closet," said Ken Ashley, a research scientist for British Columbia Fisheries. "This research is powerful, world-wide, and we needed to bring these people together to share their ideas." -Bill Bakke

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