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[1] Feds Keep On Spilling, Spending Millions For Few Fish Benefits
[2] BPA Wins Lawsuit In Ninth Circuit Over 2001 Hydro Operations
[3] Fall Chinook Run Hits Big At Bonneville Dam
[4] Washington Proposes Fishery On Lower Snake Hatchery Chinook
[5] Niners Affirm Lower Court Ruling In Methow Water Suit
[6] Review Of Columbia Basin Hatcheries Nearly Completed
[7] Feds OK Mid-Columbia PUDs' Conservation Plan
[8] Environmental Groups May Sue Feds For More Upper Snake Water
[9] Hydro Managers Flunk Again, Says American Rivers
[10] BPA Names Terry Larson To Head Fish And Wildlife Division

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Federal agency execs finally pulled the plug on the Bonneville Power Administration's last-ditch effort to end summer spill early at four federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. Though juvenile fish numbers were down to three digits at some dams, the expensive effort to help young salmon move past the dams continued through Aug. 31, costing ratepayers about $1 million a day.

A few days after the Aug. 22 decision, BPA, NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a joint statement saying that spill would continue. But the agency heads also said they believe changes must be implemented before next summer to more clearly allow alternative measures that could accomplish the biological benefits associated with spill at a reduced cost.

The statement cited an analysis by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council that concluded spilling water in August increases by only five fish the number of Snake River fall chinook listed under the Endangered Species Act, while adding about 2,400 more adults to the Hanford fall run.

But the agencies said that without regional consensus and after considerable review, "there was an inadequate basis to cease spill this year other than [on] the Aug. 31 planning date." However, "the agency heads said they believe changes must be implemented before next summer to more clearly allow alternative measures that could accomplish the biological benefit associated with spill at reduced cost."

Some utility groups were hoping for something better. "If the Biological Opinion cannot be interpreted and implemented to reflect common sense, then it must be improved," said Scott Corwin, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Generating Cooperative. "The only bright side to spilling away one million dollars of generation per day without biological benefit is that it created a very clear record for drastic change."

The decision was originally scheduled to be made Aug. 25., but it came early after several agency heads found themselves at Ice Harbor Dam Aug. 22, where President Bush delivered a speech that promised dams and healthy salmon runs could co-exist.

"The timing of the president's visit couldn't have been worse," said one observer of the process, who did not wish to be named. He said if agencies had announced an end to the spill strategy just as Bush was telling the world how much his administration was committed to salmon recovery, the president's message could have been discounted.

But Greg Delwiche, BPA's VP for generation supply, said that the timing of Bush's speech was not really an issue. He pointed out that BPA's Scott Bettin made the agency's most recent effort to raise the spill issue during fish and hydro managers' Aug. 20 meeting. That led to the executives' latest decision, he said.

"We went to the mat over this one," Delwiche told NW Fishletter, noting that BPA Administrator Steve Wright felt that spilling so much water for so few fish was poor public policy.

The day President Bush spoke at Ice Harbor, where water spilled for 12 hours for fish passage, only about 300 salmon smolts were passing the dam--a tiny fraction of the 1.3 million fall chinook that began their migration down the Snake earlier this summer. Most fish ended up being barged, about 90 percent all told, but the rest were left to migrate inriver, helped past the four dams by the summer spill that has cost BPA about $100 million since July.

Shake hands with the President.

Nobody was counting fish when the execs put their heads together and came up with a final vote of two for spill and one for ending it. The Corps' new Northwestern Division head, Brig. General William Grisoli, and regional NOAA Fisheries Administrator Bob Lohn both voted to maintain status quota spill operations. The Corps was not willing to support an early end unless NOAA signed off on it.

Lohn had earlier expressed doubts about the questionable biological value of spill versus its expense, but he said federal attorneys cautioned against changing any operations mandated by the BiOp while that document was in remand. He also told other federal execs at their Aug. 5 meeting in Portland that changing operations "was the judge's decision to make."

At the Aug. 5 meeting, federal agency heads voted down the state of Montana's proposal to evaluate a regimen of reduced flow and spill measures. Though BPA reluctantly went along with other agencies to veto Montana's request, BPA's Wright had left open the possibility of ending spill before the BiOp-mandated cutoff date of Aug. 31, citing computer forecasts that showed about 95 percent of the fall runs had passed most dams.

Arguments between fish and hydro managers over the computer forecasts continued, even though NOAA Fisheries agreed that 95 percent of the ESA-listed fall chinook had passed lower Snake dams by Aug. 20. The BiOp's call for ending spill Aug. 31 is based on data that suggested, on average, 95 percent of the run would be past the dams by then.

Members of the technical forum that oversees weekly hydro operations couldn't agree on any criteria for ending spill early, and states were split evenly on the issue as well, with Washington and Oregon against ending spill early, while Montana and Idaho supported BPA.

With no consensus by the technical folks, the issue was bumped to mid-level policy folks the next day. When no consensus was reached there either, the question was handed off to the federal executives, who essentially punted until next year.

Some parties felt betrayed by the weeks of discussion and analysis ending in such a way. "The lack of action by the federal agency leaders and the council to make changes to the August spill program signifies how corrupt and dishonest that salmon recovery has become," said Darryll Olsen, a water consultant associated with the Columbia-Snake Irrigators Association. -Bill Rudolph


A three-judge panel from the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has denied a petition filed by lower Columbia River Indian tribes, environmentalists and fishing groups that argued BPA had violated its statutory duty to treat fish and wildlife equitably with power. At issue were hydro operations in 2001, when flows and spill for fish were curtailed during a months-long power emergency.

The panel ruled BPA is not required to treat fish and wildlife equitably in every decision it makes, "so long as on the whole, it treats fish on a par with power."

In its defense, BPA listed nine points that the agency said proved it was treating fish equitably. The panel found BPA's argument "a reasoned explanation of its decision."

Those points included maintaining flow for fish at Vernita Bar, spilling for Spring Creek hatchery fish, buying back industrial and irrigation load, buying power on the market, calling for conservation and soliciting proposals for more wind generation.

In 2001, when the plaintiffs filed the petition, they said BPA-mandated low river flows killed so many fish that runs would be driven closer to extinction, "undoing years of work to restore them and perpetuating economic hardship in fishing dependent communities all along the coast." -B. R.


The silver horde has arrived. Nearly 90,000 fall chinook were counted in a four-day span from Sept. 3 to Sept. 7 at Bonneville Dam, building quickly from daily returns that numbered in the triple digits as late as Aug. 22. By the end of last week about 138,000 falls had been tallied at the dam. Fish numbers then slowed at the beginning of this week, but went through the roof Sept. 10 when more than 26,000 falls passed the dam, then hit the moon on the 11th when nearly 46,000 went by. The fall run now totals more than 311,000 fish.

The pre-season estimate predicted 600,000 fall chinook would return to the mouth of the Columbia River. Harvest Manager Cindy LeFleur of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said managers will discuss boosting that prediction this week.

Last year's fall run of 733,000 fish to the river mouth was nearly a record and more than double the recent five-year average. It was also 11 percent higher than the pre-season prediction. In 2001, the 543,000-fish return was 89 percent higher than the pre-season prediction.

The ocean may simply be more productive these days than recent harvest models have estimated. One recreational fisher was awestruck by his recent fishing trip off the Washington coast. "There were massive schools of very large (10-12 inch) herring out there," he reported. "We dropped plug-cut herring to a depth of 50 feet, and in 30 minutes of fishing, two of us caught our limit of kings--one at 25 pounds, the other at 32 pounds.

"As the fog lifted we started seeing large areas erupting with herring on the surface--frantic schools being bombed by gulls from above and salmon from below. We fly-fished around those and managed to hook a few large coho," he said. "We chased those schools for a couple of hours. It was amazing to see all that action on the surface."

As it stands, the current estimate for the Columbia River fall run would be the fifth-largest return of fall chinook since 1948. More than 250,000 are expected to be "upriver brights"--fish headed for the Hanford Reach--which would make it the second largest return to that stretch of the Columbia since 1989.

About 100,000 hatchery fish, called "tules," are estimated to return to Bonneville Pool. Tules, ready to spawn by the time they pass the dam, have little commercial value and sell for only a few cents a pound.

But no estimates are yet available for the wild Snake River component of this year's fall chinook run, which is listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act--a main reason for the hydro system's $100 million summer spill program.

In fact, a July report that updated fall runs and harvest impacts carried a footnote that said the Snake return estimates for 2001 and 2002, and the prediction for 2003, were missing "because run reconstruction analyses were not completed at the time this report was written."

NOAA Fisheries scientist Norma Jean Sands said her agency has nearly completed its work to come up with the latest estimates of wild fish. The task has been complicated by the release of hundreds of thousands of unclipped hatchery fish each year into the Snake.

Hatchery fish usually sport a clipped adipose fin that distinguishes them from wild fish. But many juvenile fish, part of the Nez Perce Tribe's supplementation program, are not marked that way, despite efforts by some agencies to get the tribe to comply.

The wild run has been low since most spawning areas were blocked by Idaho Power's Hells Canyon complex and have never reached more than about 1,000 fish since the 1970s. In 1990, the run dipped as low as 78 fish, but has rebounded since then, reaching about 900 fish in both 1998 and 1999.

NOAA Fisheries had earlier estimated that about 2,700 wild fall chinook returned to the Snake in 2001, 200 fish more than the agency's interim recovery goal. Scientists judged that most of the 8,900 fish counted at Lower Granite Dam that year were of hatchery origin. In 2002, about 12,400 fall chinook were counted at the dam, with the jury still out on the wild/hatchery makeup.

The hefty run headed for the Columbia has commercial fishermen catching more fish, but still facing low prices when they sell their catch.

One Southeast Alaska purse seiner told NW Fishletter that he caught nearly a million pounds of pink salmon this year, worth 10 cents a pound, but was throwing two to three dozen chinook alive over the side of his boat every time he hauled his net, rather than be paid only 25 cents a pound for them. The chinook were mostly headed for Canada or Lower 48 waters.

Southeast Alaska trollers, whose chinook catch is made up of about 20 percent Hanford Reach fish, were faring better, but still getting less than $1 per pound.

By the time those fish reach the Columbia, however, their commercial value plummets even more. A short gillnet fishery in early August saw upriver brights going for 75 cents a pound and tules selling for a mere 7 cents a pound. Tribal fishers will surely face even lower prices as fish condition wanes.

Harvest agreements call for a 31-percent total harvest rate on the inriver portion of the run, with tribal fishers allotted 23 percent and non-Indians splitting the rest. Ocean fisheries off Alaska, BC and the West Coast catch another 20 percent of the fall run. -B. R.


Increasing returns of hatchery fall chinook to the lower Snake River have led the state of Washington to propose a recreational fishery on salmon raised at Lyons Ferry hatchery, where some fish are grown and transported to Idaho to supplement the wild stock listed under the Endangered Species Act.

"The numbers have increased pretty dramatically," said WDFW biologist Glen Mendel, " Our agency has put together a proposal for a jack-retention fishery for fall chinook on the Snake as a supplement to the steelhead fishery that already exists... and we are trying to promote an adult fall chinook fishery in 2004 or 2005 in the Snake River."

Jacks are sexually precocious males that return to their home waters only one year after release, a year earlier than most of the run. Since some fall chinook at the Lyons Ferry hatchery are held at the facility over the winter before release to increase survival rates, they are much larger than wild juveniles that migrate to sea just a few months after they emerge from eggs. These larger juveniles sometimes return in the same year they are released (they're called mini-jacks), never even reaching the ocean. Others over-winter in reservoirs before they go to sea.

The proposal would allow recreational fishers to keep hatchery marked jacks 12 inches to 24 inches long. Mendel said the proposed fishery would catch a few more wild fall chinook, which would have to be released. The estimated mortality from releasing the fish is either 5 or 10 percent, depending on the month.

Mendel said the proposal has made waves up the coast to Alaska , where harvesters have had their catch reduced because of impacts on ESA-listed Snake River fall chinook.

Mendel said the fish returns [including jacks] have averaged about 5,000 a year "for the last couple of decades" to over 20,000 fish since 2000. He thought the numbers would keep increasing unless there was a dramatic change in ocean conditions or reductions in juvenile fish survival to the ocean.

Changes in ocean and Columbia River fisheries and river management have helped boost the hatchery returns as well, Mendel said. -B. R.


The longstanding water wars in Washington's Methow Valley heated up last month after the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit denied an appeal of a lower court ruling that allows the U.S. Forest Service to cut the amount of water reaching private landowners to aid ESA-listed fish.

Attorneys say the Aug. 14 ruling could affect water law throughout the West. "This is a pretty big case," said Russell Brooks of the Pacific Legal Foundation, who led the appeal. "At issue is whether the feds can control water across federal lands."

The Early Winters Ditch Company and Okanogan County, along with several private landowners, originally sued the U.S. Forest Service for reducing the flow of water across federal forest land to private irrigators. The federal agency said it needed to save water for steelhead and spring chinook listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The water in question had been flowing through the ditches long before the Forest Service took charge of the federal land in question or required any type of permit that allowed a right-of-way.

The plaintiffs had argued that restricting the flow was an infringement of water rights granted long ago by the state, but a three-judge panel upheld a lower court ruling that said the ditch rights-of-way permits granted by the Forest Service were subject to ESA considerations.

Attorney Brooks said the government characterized the case as being based on the Forest Service's land-use permit. "We characterized it in another way," said Brooks, "as a regulated use of water."

Brooks said the conditions the federal agency imposed on the ditch permits were intended to add more water for ESA-listed fish, not to affect land use.

But the Ninth Circuit ruling said that federal statutes gave the Forest Service "authority to maintain certain levels of flow in the rivers and streams within the boundaries of the Okanogan National Forest to protect endangered fish species."

"But even Earthjustice characterized the suit as over water" use rather than land use, Brooks noted.

Attorney John Arum, who represented intervenor Earthjustice, said the Ninth Circuit had affirmed what the group had said all along. "This is good news for salmon because the Forest Service manages so much salmon spawning habitat along the West Coast," Arum said.

Brooks said he would file a motion for a re-hearing, but noted that the court rarely allowed them. After that, there is the possibility of taking the case to the U. S. Supreme Court. Brooks said he has heard from parties in Wyoming and Colorado who are interested in the case.

In another ruling that affects some Methow water users, the Washington State Pollution Control Hearings Board affirmed the state Department of Ecology's order that the Methow Valley Irrigation District is wasting water because of leaky ditches, called conveyance losses. The Board also directed Ecology to re-examine the irrigation system "with the goal of issuing a supplemental order adequate to address excessive conveyance losses in light of any funding options available."

The irrigation district is still deciding whether to appeal the pollution control board's decision in superior court, said MVID director Vaughn Jolley. It's likely the district will file an amended complaint.

The district had turned down an earlier offer from BPA to help fund a project to lessen conveyance losses, partly because it would have incurred excessive operational costs in the future.

But some other improvements will be made soon. On Aug. 14, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council approved $958,000 in funding for two irrigation screens to keep juvenile fish from entering MVID ditches. The allocation is part of a settlement among federal, state and tribal parties to satisfy ESA concerns.

Jolley said a USGS hydrology study of the Methow Basin will soon be released that backs up the claims by some Methow water users that their leaky ditches actually recharge the aquifer and provide more flows in local rivers later in the year than would occur if the ditches were improved. -B. R.


Northwest fish hatcheries have been on the hot seat ever since federal agencies began questioning the potential genetic harm to puny ESA-listed wild runs in the Columbia Basin. But with millions of hatchery-bred salmon and steelhead smolts sharing migratory corridors and spawning grounds with tiny numbers of wild fish, it has been difficult to assess the potential damage.

However, a new study reviewed at last week's meeting of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council is a big step forward in the assessment of potential risks and benefits of hatchery operations. The report's bottom line says there is plenty of room for improvement.

The increased scrutiny has already led to the beginnings of a major overhaul of hatchery operations in Puget Sound and the new Columbia Basin study borrows from work done to analyze Puget Sound hatcheries and their effects on ESA-listed chinook stocks.

The latest study, called the "Artificial Production Review and Evaluation," represents one and a half years' of work, said council staffer Bruce Suzumoto. It examines more than 100 hatcheries and even more programs to help develop genetic management plans that will be used in the Council's subbasin planning process and NOAA Fisheries' effort to restore wild runs listed under the ESA.

With over 250 anadromous stocks, it's been a daunting chore to sort out fish in the Columbia Basin, where about one-third are "natural" stocks, one-third genetically isolated hatchery stocks, and the rest hatchery stocks that are integrated with the natural component of the run.

The review found that about half of the "integrated" stocks had more than a 10-percent wild component in the hatchery portion, while about 40 percent had a wild component of less than 10 percent.

In about one-third of the hatchery programs that were segregated from natural stocks, more than 30 percent of the natural spawners were made up of hatchery fish, while about 20 percent of these programs had less than 5 percent of their hatchery fish spawning with wild stocks.

"There is considerable room for improvement for these hatchery programs," said consultant Lars Mobrand, at last week's meeting in Spokane. He said that evaluating operations may be the most important issue that most basin programs have yet to address. After much debate, guidelines for operations have been developed over the past several years.

Mobrand said many hatchery programs have mixed goals--increasing numbers of fish for harvest, while conserving stocks and providing fish for research. In the lower Columbia, most are bred for future harvests, with little monitoring and evaluation to adjust programs for success.

Nearly half the facilities are run by Washington state, with Oregon operating about 20 percent of them. Idaho and the US Fish and Wildlife Service each operate another ten percent, and the rest are run by various tribal entities. After more input from hatchery managers and a public comment period, the report will be delivered to Congress as part of an effort to improve accountability for fish and wildlife spending. -B. R.


The federal government has finally signed off on the 50-year Habitat Conservation Plan that will allow two mid-Columbia PUDs to operate their hydro projects without adverse impacts to ESA-listed salmon and steelhead runs. Douglas and Chelan PUD began negotiations for the HCP back in 1993, working with state agencies, the Colville Tribe and NOAA Fisheries.

By completing biological opinions and Section 10 permits under the ESA, the federal fish agency has finished a major step in the projects' progress towards relicensing.

The HCP calls for an overall project survival goal for adult and juvenile salmon of 91 percent, with a 95 percent standard for juvenile survival. It also specifies habitat improvements within several watersheds in north-central Washington and funding a hatchery program designed to contribute to recovery of mid-Columbia salmon runs. -B. R.


Environmental groups have notified the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and NOAA Fisheries that the operation of 10 dams and reservoirs on the upper Snake River needs to be re-evaluated to avoid harm to ESA-listed salmon and steelhead.

Unless the upper Snake River projects comply with the Endangered Species Act, the groups, which include Idaho Rivers United, Idaho Conservation League, American Rivers, and the National Wildlife Foundation, intend to sue the agencies.

"The case is about complying with the law," said Justin Hayes of the Idaho Conservation League. "The plan for operating the upper Snake projects is illegal because it largely relies on another plan that has been ruled illegal. That situation needs to be corrected to make sure salmon get the water they need to survive." The groups say more water is needed to achieve flow targets mandated by the hydro BiOp.

But Norm Semanko of the Idaho Water Users Association said flow augmentation is a failed experiment "wholly discredited by the scientific community in recent years, and these environmental activist groups know that."

NOAA Fisheries' 2001 biological opinion found that operation of the upper Snake projects did not jeopardize salmon and steelhead stocks already listed under the ESA.

A press release from a coalition of Idaho water-user groups said the threat to sue is a "blatant attempt to extort the state to support removal of the four dams on the lower Snake River in exchange for keeping its own water." -B. R.


American Rivers has issued a grade of F to federal agencies for 2003's summer hydro operations. The environmental group said the region's fish managers earned it by failing to meet BiOp flow targets and temperature standards in the Clean Water Act.

"Because of the lower Snake River dams, the water in the river is hot for weeks on end, creating harmful and sometimes lethal conditions for young salmon," said American Rivers spokesman Michael Garrity.

He said more water should be obtained from the upper Snake to help juvenile fish, and mentioned the recent "intend to sue" letter that environmental groups sent to federal agencies on that issue. When it was pointed out that augmenting summer flows from the mainstem Snake usually means adding water that is already so hot it is violating CWA standards, Garrity told NW Fishletter that more water should be used from Idaho's Dworshak Reservoir to cool the Snake, "along with more flow in general."

The agencies must get closer to BiOp flows, he said. Garrity noted that when President Bush spoke at Ice Harbor Dam two weeks ago, the project had violated CWA standards by being warmer than 68 degrees F. for 40 days straight.

But some free-flowing regional rivers without any dams were getting plenty hot this year as well. The Pacific Salmon Commission reported Aug. 22 that temperatures in BC's Fraser River were 66 degrees F. or higher for more than a month, which was likely to have an adverse effect on migrating sockeye. -B. R.


BPA has named Terry Larson to head the agency's fish and wildlife division. Larson comes from BPA's Power Business Line, where she negotiated with customer groups, established contracting processes and established systems, processes and training for the power scheduling organization.

"I am confident her experience will provide continued leadership and new insights into our management of the integrated program," said BPA's Therese Lamb, who has moved up from serving as acting VP for Environment, Fish and Wildlife, to full VP status.

Sarah McNary, who previously headed the fish and wildlife division, has been picked to co-lead a team with senior policy advisor Lorri Bodi that will work on the remand of the 2000 hydro BiOp. -B. R.

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