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[1] Methow Irrigators Say OK To Potential Settlement
[2] Conservation Groups File Petition To Protect Wild Fish Only
[3] Fish Managers Twice Downsize Chinook Run
[4] Scientists Piece Together Last 2000 Years Of Salmon Productivity
[5] Energy Bill Passes Senate; BPA Scores Borrowing Victory

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A small irrigation district in northeastern Washington agreed last week to come to terms with federal fish officials, ending an impasse and a year of haggling over water in the Methow River. They will find out this Tuesday whether federal officials are really ready to come to terms with them.

The Methow Valley Irrigation District's three commissioners voted 2-to-1 in favor of a deal to reserve more water in the river for fish. If other parties to the negotiations OK the deal, the district will get a new lease on life. Water began flowing in the ditches last week and NMFS was expected to give the nod to the agreement soon.

Continued negotiations to iron out other details are scheduled April 30 in Spokane. It's still not clear how long the Bonneville Power Administration will be paying for pumping the district's water or picking up the rest of its maintenance costs. The agency has offered to pay the bills for the first 25 years, but some water users want the power agency to subsidize the district's costs forever. The MVID originally turned down a plan to pipe its system because associated maintenance and operation costs were prohibitive for the modest operations in its 2,300-acre service area.

The water users, who have had canals on both sides of the Methow since the early 1900s, have promised to change the way they manage the water. In late summer, the district will conserve water in the Twisp River by pumping it from the Methow, thereby improving conditions for fish when state and federal officials say salmon need it most. Irrigators had earlier agreed to switch over later in the season, in September, but natural resource agencies and Yakama Nation representatives wanted them to quit using water from the Twisp in August if flows dipped below certain levels.

Those flow levels have been a bone of contention that has prolonged the negotiations. Irrigators have criticized the state agency's water model, saying it doesn't take into account biological issues, but looks at improvements strictly from a cross-sectional viewpoint that correlates more available fish habitat to higher flows. Both sides agreed to support a new study that would determine how much flow returning salmon actually need.

Earlier reports, including a US Fish and Wildlife Service study from the early 1990s, speculated that leaky irrigation ditches in the Methow Basin actually boosted flows further down the river. But the leaky ditches in places like the Twisp, where conveyance losses were high, were the basis for an ongoing 1991 lawsuit by the Yakama Nation, which accused the district of wasting water. A two-year US Geological Survey study under agency peer-review is expected to clarify some of these issues. That study may back local residents' concerns that modernizing leaky ditches and canals throughout the basin for fish needs could have adverse affects on current groundwater levels. There is already some evidence that water-use changes mandated by the National Marine Fisheries Service have borne this out.

Almost two years ago, NMFS agreed to keep water flowing in the MVID ditches, when it approved a consent decree signed by local residents. NMFS offered the irrigators a chance to develop a habitat conservation plan in lieu of installing a $6 million pressurized pipe system opposed by residents, who said it would only add 3 cfs to river flows.

Before the consent decree was signed, the district was ready to go to court with expert witness and retired WDFW biologist Ken Williams. Williams said NMFS refused to accept most of the research on the Methow chinook and steelhead stocks that was included in a controversial 1992 USFWS study known as the "Mullan Report," and that the NMFS policy of ignoring science of the magnitude included in the report "assures that NMFS science invalidates itself. Moreover, the willful suppression of opposing information speaks of scientific malfeasance."

Residents Ready to Move On

Omak attorney Richard Price, who represented the irrigation district in its latest battle, said there are still other issues to settle, but the 2-to-1 commission vote means local residents are ready to "move on" to get water in their fields. However, lone dissenting voter Mike Gage told local media he was ready to turn the situation into another Klamath Falls if the feds had prevailed in court.

After an April 1 deadline for negotiating a settlement passed, the feds had called the district's bluff by going to court in Spokane to ask for an injunction to keep the 240 water users from opening their ditches last week. But the judge gave the parties a few days to try one last time to resolve the dispute out of court. The district voted April 22 to allow the August pump switch, but Gage was still mad. He told the Wenatchee World that the exchange gave fish a "senior right" over existing water rights and was the first step in taking irrigators' water rights away.

But attorney Price said the water rights issue is far from settled. He said the state Department of Ecology wants to retire the rights to water saved by modernizing the district's system, but the current holders of those rights want to lease or sell them.

The DOE also claimed last December that the irrigation district was violating the Clean Water Act because later summer withdrawals sometimes led to low flows for fish. Price said that was a tactic to get the district to complete negotiations. But coming to terms with NMFS doesn't mean the state is backing off with its claim, Price said. "We filed a humongous report with Ecology," he said, but it's likely the agency will issue an order to modify the historical claims.

"We've got to find a way for the state and the feds to coordinate their efforts," the Omak attorney opined. "It's really tough to deal with each party separately."

Price gave high marks to new NMFS regional administrator Bob Lohn, whom he credited with reining in NMFS officials like the agency's state policy lead Bob Turner, whose hardball rhetoric had attracted the wrath of many county residents.

The feds originally moved against the district after four chinook smolts and 36 steelhead smolts were found in a de-watered ditch in the fall of 1999. -Bill Rudolph


Seventeen conservation groups announced last week they are filing a petition with the federal government to ask for ESA protection for only wild fish in 15 West Coast salmon and steelhead stocks.

The groups say the move is to leapfrog the argument over hatchery and wild fish protection that came to a head last summer in the Alsea Valley Alliance v. Evans case now in federal appeals court. If successful, the groups admit that wild stocks wouldn't by managed any differently than they are now, but practices for hatchery fish would.

Last September, Oregon district court judge Michael Hogan de-listed coastal coho stocks because NMFS had only offered ESA protection to the wild component of the evolutionarily significant unit, or ESU, although the fish agency had also listed a hatchery component to the same ESU. After NMFS announced it would not appeal, environmental and fishing groups won intervenor status and then appealed Hogan's decision themselves to the Ninth Circuit Court, where it has been stayed for the time being.

Meanwhile, property rights groups and irrigators have petitioned to de-list most West Coast stocks while NMFS is revising its hatchery policy and updating status reviews for the listed stocks, which they say will be completed by September.

"It's the wild fish that need protection, and the science increasingly shows that one thing they need protection from is hatchery fish," said Kaitlin Lovell of Trout Unlimited.

Portland attorney James Buchal, who has spearheaded the de-listing petition, said it would be interesting to see whether NMFS decides to review the new petitions. The agency has 30 days to decide the matter. "How do you accept a petition to list something that's already listed?" Buchal said.

The groups' petition defines "wild fish" as "any naturally spawned fish belonging to an indigenous population."

The same morning the petitions were announced, Earthjustice lawyer Kristen Boyles was speaking along with Buchal at a continuing legal education seminar in Seattle billed as "Doing Business in Salmon-Land."

She said there were three possible outcomes of their appeal of the Hogan decision. "Not listing is not an option," she told the group. The decision could be overturned, in which case both wild and hatchery stocks would remain listed.

But NMFS has other options, she said. The agency could split wild and hatchery populations into two separate ESUs (and list hatchery stocks if they're essential for recovery), or lump wild and hatchery stocks into a single listed ESU, but spell out different protective measures for hatchery and wild fish. Boyles said under section 4(d) of the ESA, NMFS could mandate different protection for hatchery and wild fish.

James Buchal said hatchery fish have gotten a bad rap more because of poor management practices than any innate inferiority to their wild brethren, and pointed to a recent article by five retired biologists to back up his argument.

"Congress put limits on the definition of an ESU," Buchal said, noting that the politicians never dreamed of calling one certain lake's wild sockeye population an entire ESU, as federal authorities have done with fish in Idaho's Redfish Lake. "Hogan said, ' I got them on a technicality,'" Buchal added.

However, it was reported that NMFS will be shopping its new proposed hatchery policy to agencies and tribes in a few weeks. Though no details were forthcoming, some expect the agency to relax its policy in light of the Hogan decision because the agency still feels it is essentially the correct interpretation of the ESA, a decision they feel is likely to be reinforced by the Ninth Circuit. -B. R.


Harvest managers are still telling the world that this spring's chinook run in the Columbia River is just a little on the late side. They now estimate the run will come in at 238,000 fish when the spring count at Bonneville Dam is officially history at the end of May. Originally, the managers' model estimated a considerably larger run of 334,000 chinook, about 27 percent greater than the latest prediction. Still, if managers are right, the run will be the third largest since the dam was completed in 1938.

Managers became concerned two weeks ago when only 30,000 fish had appeared. Last Monday they reduced their estimate to 250,000 and took it down another notch last Thursday, after about 60,000 fish had been counted passing the dam. They were meeting again today, to decide whether to bump up their estimate again, after 60,000 more chinook had been counted since April 25.
Fish outwit the jack count junkies nearly every spring.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's Cindy LeFleur said the higher flows in the middle of April were likely responsible for the late run. But the reduced estimate has also cut the amount of time sports fishermen had to get a crack at the springers below Bonneville. The river was closed to sports fishing there on Monday. Sports fishers had caught about 10,000 hatchery chinook, LeFleur said, with non-Indian commercial fishermen intercepting about 8,500 upriver-bound chinook in their earlier tangle net fishery.

Tribal fishermen will now get 10 percent of the run. By the end of their first commercial opening April 19, they had caught about 14,000 fish, including about 6,000 fish counted in their ceremonial fishery.

By April 17, with the count only about 30,000 chinook, TAC members were getting concerned. By the same time last year, more than 200,000 fish had passed the dam, about 50 percent of the spring run. The issue was further complicated because the 2001 run was nearly two weeks early.

This year's count has been complicated by high river flows and turbidity at Bonneville Dam. ODF&W's Curt Melcher said it was a good sign that 1,500 fish were counted April 17 during a gullywasher sent about 345 kcfs of water past the dam, putting visibility at less than a foot and making it tough for fish to find the adult ladder to pass the dam. If conditions had been more benign, Melcher said he would have expected the count to be much higher.

According to an interim agreement with state and federal agencies, lower Columbia tribes would be allowed to harvest about 13 percent of the run if the estimate stayed on track. Their take would dip to 10 percent if the run fell to less than 200,000 fish. States would maintain the same 2 percent rate unless the run size dwindled below 50,000 fish, which hasn't happened since 1999, when 39,000 fish were counted.

The lowest recent count occurred in 1995, when only about 10,000 spring chinook returned. -B. R.


A recent article in Nature magazine (April 18, 2002) reports that long-term climate changes lasting for centuries can have huge impacts on salmon populations. Scientists studied core samples from an Alaska lake to measure nutrient levels deposited by returning sockeye salmon, signaled by an isotope of nitrogen picked up in the ocean environment. The scientists found that sockeye population levels, measured by the isotope levels in the sediment layers, had changed drastically over the centuries.

The researchers found that sockeye numbers were high in the oldest sediments that dated back 2,200 years ago and similar to levels from the 1880s when commercial fishing began on the stock, located at Karluk Lake on Kodiak Island.

Around 100 BC, a strong decrease in the isotope was measured, but began to increase about 350 years later, reaching peak abundance around AD 1200 and staying high into the 1900s, when declines in salmon-derived nutrients were attributed to commercial fishing activity and climatic changes.

The changes in salmon abundance seem to have had major effects on human habitation. "These archeological data," say the researchers, "suggest that natural variability in salmon abundance influenced human culture, which differs from what has been observed in the twentieth century, and in other fisheries, where anthropogenic fishing has been an important determinant of coastal marine fish production."

Earlier analysis of sediments from the past 300 years showed that changes in ocean productivity affected fish populations over interdecadal-scale periods, but the long-term analysis, with its peaks in abundance at BC 100 and AD 800-1200, correspond to major changes in ocean-atmosphere circulation in the northeastern Pacific, the scientists say. They also note that decreases in Alaska sockeye productivity correspond to warming waters off southern California, where sardine and anchovy stocks were more abundant during those periods. Patterns from fish bones in southern BC sediments also show that the Pacific Northwest stocks were in synch with the California abundance patterns.

"Our 2,200-year reconstructions of Alaskan sockeye salmon abundances," they say, "demonstrate that an unprecedented shift to a very low productivity regime, lasting centuries, can occur even without the influence of fisheries and other anthropogenic impacts."

The authors say it's critical to develop a better understanding of the links between climate change and ocean ecosystems in order to manage future fisheries with stocks facing additional stress from commercial fishing, habitat degradation and global warming." -B. R.


After six weeks of often rancorous debate, the Senate has approved a comprehensive energy bill, by a vote of 88 to 11. In spite of the strong vote, few members were completely happy with the bill. Democrats complained about watered-down fuel efficiency standards, while Republicans grumbled about the defeat of a plan to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But both sides swallowed their objections and began planning a new assault, to be launched when the Senate and the House begin negotiating a compromise between two vastly different energy bills.

Several members of the Senate's Northwest delegation set aside their grievances to vote for the bill after Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) pulled off a last-minute coup for Bonneville. Moments before the Senate was slated to vote on final passage, the body accepted an amendment that would increase BPA's borrowing authority by $1.3 billion.

The amendment makes "a significant new investment in the Northwest's economy and environment," Cantwell said. "This borrowing authority will allow the BPA to make much-needed improvements in its transmission grid, modernizing lines and reducing bottlenecks. The borrowing authority will also allow BPA to fund new conservation and renewable energy initiatives and make improvements at existing hydro facilities to make them more efficient and fish friendly."

Before the bill passed, Bonneville took a hit with the release of the "Green Scissors 2002" report, which called on Congress to reject BPA's request for additional borrowing authority. The annual report, prepared by Taxpayers for Common Sense, Friends of the Earth and the US Public Interest Research Group, listed 78 budget items totaling $54 billion that it called "wasteful and environmentally harmful spending." Among them was the $700 million in additional borrowing authority included in some versions of the federal budget.

The Green Scissors report said Bonneville's current debt of $13.5 billion "a tremendous burden on US taxpayers," and yet, claimed the report, "the benefits accrue to only one region of the country." Instead of seeking additional borrowing authority, Green Scissors recommended that Bonneville "identify alternate means to ensure that resources in the Pacific Northwest are available to conduct a cost-effective capital investment program, financed by the beneficiaries of the system rather than by the federal Treasury."

Bonneville has asked for a $2 billion boost in its current $3.75 billion borrowing authority. The Administration and the House budgets contain an increase of $700 million. The budgets must be reconciled before the end of the fiscal year.

The Green Scissors document sharply criticized Bonneville's "environmentally destructive forms of electricity generation" and its fish programs, calling the federal dams "the primary cause of the decline of endangered salmon in the Columbia and Snake Rivers."

BPA spokesman Ed Mosey called the report "the usual diatribe that misconstrues the entire situation for political purposes." Noting that a long-time BPA opponent, the Northeast-Midwest Coalition, helped write the report, Mosey said, "they want to usurp the value of the federal (hydro) system from Northwest ratepayers.

"They mistakenly connect low Northwest rates with what they call the raw deal they are getting. But as we know, there is nothing subsidized in our federal system. We repay the entire debt, with interest," said Mosey.

Something For Everybody

The comprehensive energy bill approved last week offers a broad range of tax incentives designed to boost production and conservation, including investment tax credits for clean coal and fuel cell technologies, as well as oil and gas production. It also re-authorizes the Price Anderson Act and increases federal assistance for the next generation of nuclear plants.

Idaho Republican Larry Craig was successful gaining approval for his amendment to ease the hydro relicensing process. Co-sponsored by Gordon Smith (R-OR), the amendment allows a license applicant to propose the most cost-effective operating alternative that meets fish and other environmental mandates. And it requires natural resource agencies to give serious consideration to those proposals.

Calling it a "critical first step," Craig said the amendment would "provide an important opportunity for hydropower owners and operators to meet current environmental standards through alternatives that could save energy and costs." He insisted that the amendment would not change environmental standards, since natural resource agencies would still have the final say. However, if the license applicant could show its proposal met environmental mandates and was cost-effective, the resource agencies would have to accept the proposal.

Linda Church Ciocci, head of the National Hydropower Association, praised the Senate action, saying it "provides meaningful change in a process that is far too unwieldy and unpredictable for anybody's liking."

Environmental groups opposed Craig's amendment. "We believe this language, if it became law, would make it harder for the public and environmental regulatory agencies to secure environmental improvements at hydropower dams during the relicensing process," said Eric Eckl, a spokesman for American Rivers. Eckl said American Rivers and other groups would lobby to remove Craig's amendment during the upcoming conference.

Craig voted for the comprehensive bill, but echoed fellow Republicans' criticism of its failure to permit drilling for oil in ANWR. "Unfortunately, the Senate bill does not adequately address America's short-term energy needs, particularly the critical need to reduce our nation's dependence on foreign oil. I think this bill can be improved in conference and will be worth getting to the President's desk," said Craig.

The conference with the House promises to be even more arduous than the fight to get the bill through the Senate. The House energy bill, which carries the President's support, is vastly different than the Senate version. The House strongly promoted drilling in ANWR and offered $33 billion in tax incentives, primarily aimed at increasing production from oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear energy. -Lynn Francisco

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