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[1] Marathon Fish Research Review Comes Up With Some Winners
[2] Power Council Gets First Subbasin Plan And Earful From Science Panel
[3] New Fish Studies Suggest Cheap Survival Boost Possible At Some Dams
[4] Washington Irrigators Win New Water Rights
[5] Oregon Adopts Rules To Protect Native Fish
[6] Puget Sound Chum Run May Be Largest Since 1913
[7] More Record Redd Counts In Northwest Rivers
[8] BPA Pushes Rate Increase Decision To Next Year

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The US Army Corps of Engineers hosted its annual research review in Portland last week, where biologists and engineers gathered to hear the latest results of dozens of studies being conducted on the mainstem Columbia and Snake rivers to help improve fish passage at federal dams. The review gave other federal scientists a venue for announcing more good news about overall fish survival in the system.

It took four days' worth of presentations to cover more than 80 projects that represented $30 million in research funding over the past year--with the preliminary results from the Corps' removable spillway weir (RSW) at Lower Granite Dam taking the lion's share of the limelight. The huge prototype steel structure is located in front of one of the dam's spill gates and creates a gigantic waterslide for juvenile fish to ride past the dam. It has become the pride of the Corps, the $12 million 2-million-pound gorilla of all the projects under study.

The early results with the RSW show that more fish pass the dam while less water is being spilled than under current conditions, where fish must pass over the spillway through open gates about 40 feet below the surface of the reservoir.

Results from this year's testing showed that 56 percent to 62 percent of the fish passed over the RSW with only 9 percent of the water discharge, while the regular spillway passed 17 percent to 22 percent of the fish with 22 percent of the water discharge. Together, the RSW and spillway passed 73 percent to 78 percent of the fish while discharging 31 percent of the water passing the dam. Translated into plain English, it means more fish go over the dam while more water can be routed to the powerhouse.

Early results also showed that the prototype RSW significantly reduced the time it took for fish to pass the dam, especially during low flows. A survival study conducted with balloon-tagged fish in the fall of 2001 showed that about 98 percent of the smolts survived the RSW route 48 hours after passage, compared to 100 percent survival via the regular spillway. After the fish passed the dam, the tags inflated and the fish were retrieved on the surface of the water below the dam in about 15 minutes. The novel tagging operation recaptured over 99 percent of the 520 test fish.

The 50 foot-wide RSW was also evaluated by hydro-acoustic sensors that tracked fish movement towards the weir under different operating conditions. Unfortunately, due to a turbine outage at Lower Granite and high runoff that forced spill, results were only statistically valid for a 10-day period in May. Nonetheless, the results were stunning.

Spill effectiveness (fish-to-water ratio) was highest in the scenario with the least spill--only 8 Kcfs/hour--and was lowest in the scenario with the most spill, 29 Kcfs/hour. The RSW with 8 Kcfs spill passed 78 percent of the juvenile fish, while the BiOp-mandated spill level, governed by a 120 percent dissolved gas limit, passed 74 percent of the fish while spilling 42 Kcfs. The researchers reported that it took about 3.5 times as much water under the gas cap scenario to pass nearly the same number of fish when the RSW was open with 8 Kcfs spill in the rest of the dam's spillway.

The atmosphere of the meeting was positively giddy after the RSW presentations. One presenter even suggested to the rest of the audience that "it's still not too late to get on the bus!" But several biologists who spoke to NW Fishletter after the session said it was possible that an RSW could be much less effective at another dam because the physical conditions at Lower Granite, together with the way river conditions route fish passage, may skew the RSW's efficiency upward. BPA is pushing for further study of the system, hoping it will support installation of the weirs at Ice Harbor and Lower Monumental dams.

Another potential difficulty with an RSW installation is its effect on collecting fish for transport. By routing more fish over the spillway instead of to a dam's bypass system, fewer fish are available for transport downstream via barge. Last spring, so many fish were routed around Lower Granite's bypass system by the RSW that a NMFS tagging crew had a hard time PIT-tagging enough wild chinook for a survival study under way at the time.

More Survival Studies

NMFS scientists were also on hand with their latest analysis of how well fish transported down the Snake were doing compared to their inriver migrating brethren. Scientist Doug Marsh said it was another good year for returns on the Snake River. With adult returns now complete for spring chinook that migrated to sea in 1999, Marsh said preliminary results showed that the ratio of returning hatchery fish transported downriver to inriver migrants was 1.3, which means transported fish showed a 30 percent survival advantage when they returned as adults. Wild fish fared even better from the barge rides, with a transport/inriver [T/I] ratio of 1.8. In lay terms, that's an 80 percent better survival rate than inriver migrating wild chinook. Marsh said the ratios were based on inriver fish not detected at a Snake River dam below Lower Granite.

For year 2000 salmon releases, Marsh said preliminary results show that the preliminary T/I for wild fish is 1.2, with next year's returns needed to complete the analysis.

Wild steelhead returns from 1999 releases showed even better results than the spring chinook data, with the preliminary T/I for hatchery fish pegged at 1.4 and wild fish estimated at 2.6. For 2000, the preliminary wild steelhead T/I was 1.9.

Marsh reported that smolt-to-adult returns (SAR) for Snake spring/summer chinook for 1990 releases showed a 2.3 percent SAR for hatchery fish and a 2.01 percent SAR for wild fish. For 2000, with more adult fish to count next year, preliminary data showed that wild fish, so far, are piling up a better SAR than hatchery fish, 0.91 percent compared to 0.5 percent for hatchery fish.

But the NMFS scientist reported on an issue that has been the subject of some consternation for federal biologists. For 2000 steelhead releases, Marsh said NMFS sees an SAR averaging around 4 percent for returning fish that migrated out of the Snake before the middle of May. But after that date, few if any steelhead have returned from the 2000 outmigration. He said a possible explanation is some kind of early regime shift in the ocean.

"This drastic change has to be related to the ocean," Marsh said, noting that early returns from the 2001 outmigration look similar to those in 2000.

Overall juvenile survival through the hydro system was similar to or even greater than recent years, excluding 2001's drought-plagued migration. NMFS' Bill Muir reported that Snake spring chinook averaged 66 percent survival from hatcheries to Lower Granite Dam and about 50 percent survival from the tailrace of Lower Granite to the tailrace of Bonneville Dam. Steelhead survival through the hydro system was about 27 percent this year. The scientists also estimated fall chinook survival from McNary Dam to the John Day tailrace at nearly 76 percent, a bit higher than in past years.

Another group of scientists from Oregon State University surgically implanted radio transmitters into steelhead and fall chinook to evaluate differences between barged and inriver migrating fish in an attempt to find evidence of delayed mortality. They tracked the fish from below Bonneville Dam to the Columbia estuary, using fixed-receiver sites, boats and aircraft.

Most fish migrated successfully, with inriver migrants exhibiting an edge over barged fish. Other work by the same group showed survival of barged steelhead released below Bonneville was higher than for inriver migrants in two out of three sample groups. The study estimated that maximum mortality in the estuary this year for the groups ranged between 43 percent and 51 percent for transported steelhead and between 29 percent and 65 percent for run-of-river fish, with most mortality occurring in the lower estuary.

A NMFS study that looked at adult fish survival in recent years found that an earlier trend showing lower return rates for wild spring chinook that were routed through multiple bypass systems at lower Snake dams "no longer exists." NMFS scientist John Williams reported that the large increase in adult returns that began with the 1999 outmigration still shows a slight downward trend for hatchery fish, but that could be caused by the differences in the quality of fish detected versus those not detected.

Other presentations dealt with many site-specific issues, including passage survival through turbines and spillways, adult passage, tern predation, lamprey migration, and effects of water temperatures on fish migration. But none may be as important for making immediate improvements as a study that looked at juvenile passage survival at Ice Harbor Dam.

Preliminary results showed only about an 89 percent survival rate for spring chinook at the dam, about the same as turbine survival. No one is sure why survival is so low there, but some suspect the stilling basin below the dam may be more lethal to fish than previously thought. At most other federal dams, spillway survival is on the order of 98 percent. Given that the current BiOp calls for 80 percent of spring and summer flows to be spilled at Ice Harbor, a reduction in spill could save millions for the cash-strapped power agency. BPA has the issue on its wish list, suggesting that an RSW located there might just be the answer. -Bill Rudolph


Members of the Northwest Power Planning Council have received the first subbasin management plan of many that will eventually guide the future of fish and wildlife recovery efforts in the Columbia Basin. The plans are part of a huge undertaking to coordinate efforts to recover specific ESA-listed stocks with the broader council mandate to fix fish runs throughout the Columbia River basin.

Difficulties with coordinating the efforts became evident at the Oct. 12-13 council meeting in Coeur d'Alene, ID, as dueling proposals surfaced between federal agencies and fish and wildlife managers over how to evaluate recovery strategies.

But the first subbasin plan to appear was still reason enough for some mutual back scratching. The plan focuses on the Clearwater drainage in Idaho and was developed by a mixture of public and private agencies and the Nez Perce Tribe, with technical assistance from the Pullman, WA-based consulting firm Ecovista.

"This plan is the result of years of hard work by a wide variety of individuals within the Clearwater subbasin," said Vice Chair Judi Danielson, Idaho member of the council. "Because this is the first subbasin plan to be submitted to the council, it will help the council develop processes for consideration of plans from the remaining 60-plus subbasins in the Columbia River basin."

Jim Kempton, Idaho's other council member, said the plan meets the technical requirements set up by the council by providing an extensive assessment of fish and wildlife populations, along with an inventory of current projects and past accomplishments.

The plan will be reviewed by the council's Independent Scientific Review Panel (ISRP). Council members will also review it before they start the formal rulemaking process to amend the region's fish and wildlife program.

The science panel presented its final review of next year's fish and wildlife proposals that deal with the mainstem and system-wide issues, a "catchall" category, according to ISRP Chair Rick Williams. The panel approved about 60 percent of the proposals as completely fundable. Another 25 percent were designated as partly fundable, and about 20 percent were judged as not fundable, mainly for "technical inadequacies," Williams said.

Williams said one of the panel's big concerns this year was the extra level of review by the NMFS research, monitoring and evaluation [RME] group. The group judged how well proposals meshed with implementation of the hydro BiOp and satisfied the nearly 200 different "reasonable, prudent alternatives" to current operations that the document spells out to get the federal dams off the hook for jeopardizing ESA-listed fish runs.

The monitoring and evaluation elements of the new BiOp are critical parts of the effort to gauge effectiveness of the reasonable, prudent alternatives. The information gathered will indicate whether biological performance standards for fish improvement are reached at future check-in periods. If the standards aren't attained, studies will begin to look at breaching lower Snake River dams.

Williams said the new group's comments were generally consistent with the ISRP's review, but he said there is a potential conflict of interest in having NMFS provide this review. "Some of the people who sit on the RME group are also project sponsors," Williams said. He said ISRP members are not allowed to sponsor projects. The potential conflict might be resolved by having the NMFS group teach the ISRP "what we need to know" so it can do that part of the review itself, Williams added.

But an even larger potential problem loomed, Williams said, because the RME group's review, funded by BPA and charged with developing a coordinated basin-wide monitoring and evaluation process, is in direct competition with a proposal submitted by the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority.

The ISRP has given the CBFWA proposal overall better marks, because it "is broader, both in scope and participation than other [monitoring and evaluation] in the system-wide province, and therefore, has a higher probability of success and should receive priority for immediate funding," according to the ISRP's review.

Williams said it's a policy issue and should be settled at that level.

The ISRP was also troubled by the fact that some proposals they judged technically inadequate were allowed to be re-worked by the RME group until they became "critical components of their plans to meet [reasonable, prudent alternatives] needs," according to the science panel's review.

ISRP Chair Williams used the bully pulpit to support more PIT tag detectors and a larger sampling effort to reduce statistical problems estimating smolt-to-adult returns.

The panel said current formulas to measure fish survival rates "are complicated, convoluted, and in general, very unsatisfactory from a statistical point of view. Accordingly, there is high probability that these methods will continue to spawn arguments and counter-arguments over trivial issues that will occupy resources of the region, because the stakes are high: e.g., high costs of spill, high costs of transportation, unknown long-term effects of the non-normative transportation, high costs of flow augmentation, etc."

The group pushed for more study of fish that get stranded in the Hanford Reach, and supported a proposal that calls for studying behavioral mechanisms of fish that might affect straying rates. They said the results would provide information that would be useful for revising the Vernita Bar Agreement, which governs winter hydro operations to ensure that most fall chinook redds below Priest Rapids Dam stay covered.

The science panel had questions about a study that will look at the effectiveness of raising hatchery fish in more natural surroundings and conditioning them to respond to predators. The ISRP said it was likely juvenile survival benefits would be only 10 percent or so, a small boost for a project that will have to continue for the next eight or 10 years to get adequate results.

Mid-C Fish Studies Reported

The council also heard about the latest survival studies from Mid-Columbia dams. Stuart Hammond of Grant County PUD said juvenile fish survivals were higher through turbines at Wanapum Dam in both 2001 and 2002 than were observed over the spillway He also said spill deflectors to reduce dissolved gas levels at the dam may be hurting fish.

The utility, which has been studying different ways of spilling water, is committed to achieving 95 percent juvenile fish survival at each of its projects.

At Priest Rapids, Hammond said juvenile steelhead survival was 98 percent in 2000 (both turbine and spillway), and 94 percent in 2002.

The utility tried a top-spill configuration at one spill gate and found that more fish passed with less water spilled than under normal operating conditions with bottom spill in effect.

Hammond said Grant will try additional top-spill testing at Wanapum and install an advance-design turbine with more generating capacity to see if fish survival will be at least as high as presently observed.

Chelan PUD's Chuck Peven outlined his utility's obligations under the Habitat Conservation Plan for three years of testing to come up with "no net impact" to fish from his utility's two dams. That means a goal of 93 percent survival at each project (reservoir, forebay, dam and tailrace), or 95 percent at the concrete. Peven said the goals would be achieved by a combination of improvements in spill and bypass systems, turbines, predator control and continuing research and development.

Peven said Chelan is building a smolt bypass system at Rocky Reach Dam because spilling water there is an inefficient way to pass fish through, while surface currents can corral fish towards a bypass.

With 50 percent spill at Rocky Reach, Peven said only 20 percent of the young fish use the spillway. Conversely, at Rock Island, 50 percent spill attracts about 70 percent of the migrants. Survival of test fish this year between the tailrace of Rocky Reach and the tailrace of Rock Island was 95 percent. Some spillway gates have been notched to improve fish guidance while reducing overall flow.

Chelan contracts with the Department of Agriculture to reduce pikeminnow predation and harass birds, Peven told the council. "Predator control is probably the most cost-effective way that we have of keeping our survivals at levels we can accept," Peven said. Since 1994, he said about 95,000 pikeminnow have been removed. -B. R.


A paper published in the North American Journal of Fisheries Management (22:1193-1200, 2002) has raised questions about whether turbines at mainstem dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers are being operated to ensure maximum fish survival. The paper suggests that discharging more water through some turbines could boost juvenile fish survival by several percent, even though it would mean operating the machines at less than peak power production efficiency. Such a survival increase is similar to the improvement expected for expensive fixes at dams that cost millions of dollars.

The NMFS BiOp that governs operations calls for turbines to run within one percent of peak efficiency because federal fish folks believe this assures the highest survival rates for juvenile salmon and steelhead that pass through turbines. Peak efficiency occurs when turbines produce the most electricity for the amount of "head" behind the dam and generally occurs when flows are smoothest through the turbines.

But the paper, by U.W. professor John Skalski and consultants Dilip Mathur and Paul Heisen of Normandeau Associates, says there is some evidence that higher flows than those that make Kaplan turbines most efficient may offer improved fish survival.

The authors reexamined older evidence that serves as the foundation for NMFS' belief in peak efficiency and compared it to research conducted by Normandeau from 1994 to 2000 that has used the latest balloon-tag technology for measuring smolt survival at several Northwest dams. They say earlier unpublished studies conducted in the mid-1960s by Milo Bell of the Corps of Engineers do not support his conclusion that "the data offers some support...to the hypothesis that the best points of machine efficiency should give the best points of fish passage survival."

A turbine at Bonneville Dam. (Photo courtesy Corps of Engineers)

The paper looks at recent studies the authors conducted at Lower Granite, Wanapum, Rocky Reach and Bonneville dams, in which they manipulated operations to examine the possible relationship between fish survival and turbine efficiency. Other than at Bonneville Dam, maximum survival was not observed at peak efficiency. At Bonneville, survival of fish released at the middle and tips of turbine blades was highest when turbines were running at peak efficiency, but those fish released at turbine hubs, which showed generally higher survivals anyway, did not have their highest survivals when the turbines were run at peak efficiency. The study reports about 100 percent survival when turbine discharge levels were both lower and higher than during peak efficiency, when survival was about 97 percent.

The paper also reported on a meta-analysis that examined results from 11 different hydro projects and found no relationship between turbine passage survival and operating efficiency.

A few percent difference in survival does not sound like much until the huge cost of modifying dams for such small survival gains is factored into the policy picture. The authors say the difference in survival, such as the 3.2 percent boost at Wanapum Dam that was observed when turbines were operated outside of peak efficiency, "is as great as the benefits of some other mitigation efforts under consideration at hydro projects in the Snake and Columbia River basins (e.g., surface bypass collectors, diversion screens). The survival benefit in this case, however, can be more rapidly achieved, and without major new capital investment, by simply fine-tuning the turbine operations and modifying the plus or minus 1 percent efficiency rule."

As new equipment is developed to replace older turbines, the authors say the premise of the efficiency rule will have to be "carefully reexamined so that optimal operating conditions for the fisheries resource can be better defined."

Similar research the consultants conducted at McNary Dam in 2002 was discussed at the recent Corps of Engineers' research review. The highest fish survivals were reported outside of the peak operating efficiency of the turbine under study, with about a 3 to 5 percent improvement, up to 98.3 percent, when the turbine was operated at a higher level of discharge than at peak (14,000 cfs v. 11,200 cfs).

But the issue was confounded by a related NMFS study underway at the same time, which was also discussed at the research review. The NMFS study, using only radio-tagged fish passing through the same turbine at McNary Dam, tracked them to 4 km. below the tailrace and found about 84 percent and 85 percent survival (48 hr) of juvenile chinook at operational levels of both peak efficiency (11,200 cfs) and a discharge of 16,400 cfs, suggesting the possibility of a predation effect below the dam. NMFS researcher John Ferguson said there weren't enough test fish available to partition the study area below the dam and test for such a condition.

The Normandeau folks had also found that operating the turbine at these two discharge levels resulted in nearly identical survivals, though about 10 percent higher than in the NMFS study because the test fish were retrieved just a few minutes after they passed through the turbine. Whether the fish are more susceptible to predation after passing through a turbine than over a spillway is still a matter of conjecture, with little data to support any conclusion, scientists say. -B. R.


Columbia River irrigators and the state of Washington have settled a long-standing feud over water rights, cutting short a trial scheduled to last a week in Benton County Superior Court. Both sides spent months preparing depositions and lining up expert testimony to argue over the value of flows to ESA-listed fish in the Columbia River.

The irrigators were trying to pry a few new water rights out of the state, based on a 1980 agreement. But the state, citing the NMFS' "no-net-loss" water policy for the mainstem out of concern for ESA-listed fish, had refused for years to issue new rights.

The parties settled before the flow-survival arguments were aired publicly. The irrigators got their water in the form of seven new permits. The agreement gives them the option of paying $10 per acre-foot per year for a guaranteed right, or simply receiving a right that could be curtailed during low-water years or be subject to a new initiative for Columbia River water management that is still under development.

The Columbia-Snake Irrigators Association agreed to join the management initiative as part of the settlement. They had previously refused to take part in the process, begun a year ago under the lead of Washington Department of Energy head Tom Fitzsimmons. They also agreed to maintain and install state-of-the-art irrigation efficiencies and transfer any conserved water to the state.

Fitzsimmons told The Tri-City Herald the settlement was not "about meeting no-net-loss," but about the future. He said the state was now prepared to defend the program before the federal government.

The irrigators' attorney, James Buchal, said he was disappointed that the scientific merits of the case were not debated in open court, to be resolved by a neutral observer such as Superior Court Judge Dennis Yule, who has refereed the feud through several court hearings since May 2000.

In January 2001, Judge Yule ruled that the state of Washington couldn't use BiOp-mandated federal flow targets on the Columbia River as a reason to deny new water permits for eastern Washington irrigators.

The state had earlier offered to grant new permits, but under terms that were not acceptable to irrigators. They said language in the proposal would not allow the new permit holders to draw water during July and August during most normal water years, because the state wanted to maintain federal flow targets mandated in the hydro BiOp. -B. R.


The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted a statewide native fish policy at their November 8 meeting in Portland. The policy was developed with the help of a stakeholder and agency task force that hammered out the new policy over the past seven months.

It's been a long time coming. In 1999, Governor Kitzhaber issued an executive order to the ODFW to "conduct a science and stakeholder review to determine if this significant policy (Wild Fish Management Policy) should be revised and shall make any revision by July 2000."

The initial policy draft received critical comments from some ODFW staff. A January 2002 letter from two ODFW field biologists took issue with the strategy of using hatchery supplementation to rebuild wild salmonids, a key element of the new policy.

"It is not a panacea and we should quit portraying it as such," said Bill Knox and Brad Smith, who work in the northeast part of the state. "When we have had increases in wild production they have been associated with region-wide increases in productivity, not a result of supplementation." They said 20 years of experience with supplementation has shown enhanced sport and tribal fisheries, but "no examples of benefits to existing wild populations."

The ODFW Commission adopted a policy that defines "native" fish as both wild and hatchery fish and calls for "responsible" use of hatcheries. Hatcheries shall be used to help achieve the goals of this policy including "prevent the serious depletion of any native fish species..."

The new policy bases conservation on aggregates of populations, another point contested by the biologists in their letter. "How will we make conservation of sustainable populations the priority when we manage for aggregates?" they asked. "On the one hand, we say locally adapted populations are the foundation for conservation of genetic resources and recovery, then we say aggregates of populations are sufficient. If there is a scientific basis for this movement away from local populations to aggregates, we are not aware of it."

The new policy anticipates using native broodstock in hatchery programs as a way to rebuild wild populations, another problem from the biologists' point of view. "We also need to quit treating endemic broodstocks as a panacea that will reduce impacts to wild populations. In reality, the effect may be just the opposite."

The also pointed to difficulties working with the court-ordered Columbia River Fish Management Plan. "The tribes want to maximize hatchery production and the feds want to do whatever the tribes want. Unless we can develop a legally binding agreement through a forum such as US v. Oregon, we're pissin' in the wind."

Their letter said they did not have the support of the state or the federal agencies, "regardless of what was written in policies or ESA permits. We certainly haven't been able to maintain conservation as our highest priority."

The hatchery issue was argued for months. Bill Moshofsky, spokesman for the Save Our Salmon Coalition, a group that includes the Oregon Farm Bureau, Oregon Cattlemen's Association, and the Oregon Wheat Growers, said ODFW rules represented an "unjustified bias against fish bred in hatcheries." The group supports the position that hatchery and wild fish are "genetically and functionally the same" and they challenged the claim made in the new policy that wild fish provide the best genetic foundation and are the best equipped to survive and reproduce.

The conservation group Oregon Trout was also involved in the task force and supported the adoption of the native fish conservation policy. Spokesman Jim Myron said the new policy "makes it very clear that the protection and recovery of naturally spawning wild fish is the primary obligation of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife." He hoped that the adoption of the policy would diffuse the debate in the legislature over wild versus hatchery fish.

The new policy will replace general statewide standards with management actions and standards tailored to meet the unique needs of native species in individual basins, a point contested by other conservationists. Les Helgeson, speaking for the Native Fish Society, said without standards, the new policy has little value. "But the ODFW staff deferred any consideration of numerical standards for minimum population size and hatchery fish stray rates," Helgeson said. The Native Fish Society was the only conservation group participating in the process that did not support approval of the policy.

But ODFW director Lindsay Ball was optimistic. "My goal is to see that hatchery fish have the least impact on wild stocks...we will always need that reservoir of wild fish," he said.

The F&W commission also adopted an order that required staff to propose salmon and steelhead species management unit designations by December 2003, and to review all ODFW's current fish management administrative rules for consistency with the new policy by September 2003. -Bill Bakke


The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has estimated that this fall's run of chum salmon returning to Puget Sound may set a new record, one that hasn't been broken since 1913. That's if 3 million fish show up.

Streams throughout the Sound are already plugged, biologists say, including Hood Canal, where about 800,000 chum are expected. The summer chum run in Hood Canal is listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Another 300,000 chum are expected to return to the Skagit River, along with 600,000 fish to the Stillaguamish and Snohomish river systems.

Biologists attribute the huge return to a large parent run, moderate flooding in recent years and improved ocean survival. But the huge chum return isn't exactly an anomaly; about 2.75 million chum returned to the Sound in 1994 and 2001. -B. R.


Preliminary redd counts released this week show that returning salmon have again set records in both Oregon and Washington. Biologists counted 1,500 spring chinook redds in Oregon's John Day Basin, according to a Nov. 15 ODFW press release, the highest number seen since they began keeping track in 1959. Outside traditional survey areas, another 455 redds were counted. Only one percent of the carcasses surveyed on the spawning grounds was determined to be of hatchery origin, said ODFW. They attributed the recent strong runs to favorable ocean conditions and the longer-term trend in better survival to improving habitat conditions as well, fostered by cooperative projects by government agencies, tribes and private landowners.

Wenatchee Basin summer chinook have set a record as well. Chelan PUD's Chuck Peven said the 5,419 redds tallied beats the previous record which goes back to the 1950s. The spring chinook redd count didn't break last year's record when 1,800 nests were counted, but came in third overall with 1,139 counted in the basin.

Fall chinook spawning in the Hanford Reach was nearly off the charts, where index areas saw the largest redd counts ever, according to Grant PUD's Gary Garnant. In the less than two-mile stretch along Vernita Bar, 638 redds were counted on Sunday. He said it' s more than close to a record, but the PUD won't claim one yet, since all parties involved in river management must agree to a final number before the celebrating can begin. Garnant said last year's low flows accounted for only 41 redds to be counted in the index area. He did say no one has seen such a high redd density in this stretch of the river before, and noted that aerial surveying is underway to tally deep redds in the river not yet surveyed. Nearly 25,000 fall chinook even headed upriver past Hanford this year, passing Priest Rapids Dam, with some destined to spawn in the reservoir below Wanapum Dam. -B. R.


BPA last week said the conditions that would trigger a new rate increase are not in place, but that "it is an extremely close call, and it won't take much to push us into that condition." The comments came in a letter BPA Administrator Steve Wright sent to customers Friday, a week after the passing of the agency's original self-imposed deadline to decide whether it would trigger a rate increase under the rubric of the safety net cost recovery adjustment clause, or SN CRAC.

"We will need to closely monitor streamflows and markets affecting net secondary revenues, as well as our ability to realize additional savings," wrote Wright. He said the agency will revisit the matter of an SN CRAC trigger "after the first of the year." Sources said a decision is likely no later than the end of January.

The letter echoes what the agency said the week before on the uncertainty of present conditions and its cost cutting efforts. BPA has identified $350 million in expense reductions, deferrals and other actions that can be put into place without further haggling. Another $500 million in less certain cuts are pending and "will take cooperative efforts on the part of many parties in the region"--including IOUs and fish managers--to achieve. Even if BPA gets the $500 million in added cuts, that's not enough to prevent an SN CRAC.

A major component of the cost cuts stems from what the letter refers to as the agency's "new target aimed at keeping BPA's internal power-related costs as close to 2001 levels as possible through 2006." The previous week BPA cast this commitment as "keeping internal operating costs flat," but a spokesman said there is nothing to be read into the subtle difference in language.

BPA's commitments to internal cost control are especially important to customers because of some bad blood over the authenticity of BPA's original cost projections during the rate case and grating anomalies such as the agency's decision to send 41 employees to a software conference in the southeast.

The BPA letter elicited almost instantaneous criticism from Columbia Basin treaty tribes, who said BPA's plan "to slash up to $200 million from its fish and wildlife budget" is "profoundly irresponsible.

"This reckless approach clearly represents disregard for the fish and wildlife project recommendations of the tribes and the NW Power Planning Council," said CRITFC's Donald Sampson.

"They make it sound like we're gutting the program," BPA spokesman Ed Mosey said, whereas the agency is simply asking the tribes for suggestions on how fish costs, among others, might be held as close as possible to 2001 levels.

"It can be reasonably argued that today the BPA system is financially overcommitted," Wright conceded in the letter. "If the system cannot generate net secondary revenues substantially in excess of what's been achieved historically, the problem will be worse. BPA and all those who get benefits from this system are going to be struggling to get expenses in line with revenues for the remaining four years of this rate period."

Wright added that BPA "will also need to be vigilant on how we structure our commitments and costs for post-2006," but did not elaborate further.

Pat Reiten, CEO of Pacific Northwest Generating Cooperative, said BPA deserved credit for its commitment to keeping internal costs at 2001 levels, especially because the SN CRAC was never envisioned as a mechanism to pay for increases in BPA's internal costs. But he said there are still some other "shoes to drop" that were not explicitly part of the Financial Choices process that led to Friday's letter.

In particular, he said, BPA is closing in on a decision over how to allocate proceeds from Energy Northwest bond refinancing. Reiten said rumor has it that BPA means to credit the funds to its Transmission Business Line, as opposed to the Power Business Line, so as to enhance borrowing authority for infrastructure improvement. That's "a laudable goal," he said, but one that would have a negative impact on the Slice true-up due to be calculated next month, and one that would ultimately put more pressure on an SN CRAC trigger. Reiten said members of the Slice implementation group have asked the agency to put off a decision on whether to credit the proceeds to TBL or PBL for now and that the agency seemed willing to do so.

Reiten said another factor will be whether DSIs pay liquidated damages accrued under their take-or-pay contracts. BPA's letter alludes to this matter as an area of uncertainty--the agency has said some $30 million is at stake in the near term and an estimated $60 million for the rate period--but it was not a feature of the Financial Choices process. Even so, "the amount of revenue that comes from the DSIs will be a major factor" for BPA in the SN CRAC decision, Reiten said, and has "an even more immediate impact for Slice customers," also because of the imminent Slice true-up.

According to the letter, the cuts the agency is making "are not all good decisions for the long term, but they reflect our view that near-term rate considerations have taken on higher priorities."

In addition to cuts, BPA is taking "increased risk with our Treasury payment," and estimated that repayment probability is now below the level targeted in the last rate case, but still above the 50 percent that would trigger an SN CRAC. "Unless there is a dramatic increase in net secondary revenues, [Treasury repayment probability] is unlikely to get back to historic levels during this rate period."

The letter goes on to say that BPA's $1.2 billion shortfall for the current rate period assumes a 10 percent rate decrease from the 2002 level in years 2004 to 2006. Foregoing that decrease would reduce the gap by $330 million. But then, even with $350 million in certain and $500 million in hoped-for cuts, BPA would have only a "50/50 probability of financially breaking even through this rate period."

Wright also addressed the uncertainty of secondary revenue projections. The agency is forecasting secondary revenues substantially above those produced historically, and insists the forecast is "based on a reasonable set of assumptions." But there is "huge uncertainty about the amount of precipitation we'll see next year and for the remainder of the rate period. If the water or market prices are low this year, we're likely to lose money again." -Ben Tansey

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