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[1] Spill Proposal Could Cut Rates 2 Percent, Save Up To $31 Million
[2] Politics Played Big Role In Adding Summer Spill To 1995 BiOp
[3] BiOp Judge Worries About Approaching 'Train Wreck'
[4] Summer Chinook Harvest Begins; Another Big Fall Run Expected
[5] Wet And Wild May Adds Little To Streamflow Forecast
[6] Fish Managers Say No To Montana Flow Change

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Action agencies last week released an amended spill proposal for this summer's dam operations on the Columbia River. The long awaited plan is a more moderate version of an earlier proposal that called for no spill in August at the four mainstem dams for the next three years, a move the Bonneville Power Administration said could save ratepayers up to $31 million a year and cut wholesale power costs by a percent or two.

So far, NOAA Fisheries has given the plan an informal OK, but basin tribes and environmentalists are still vehemently opposed to the idea of cutting spill, while a group of utilities said it didn't go far enough.

At a June 8 press conference announcing the plan, BPA Administrator Steve Wright said the earlier proposal would have reduced summer spill by about 55 percent, while the amended version proposes cutting spill by about 39 percent for the July-August period. August spill would cease altogether at Bonneville and The Dalles, but be maintained for the first three weeks of the month at Ice Harbor and John Day dams.

Under the proposed plan, BPA will pay Idaho Power $4 million to release water from Brownlee Reservoir in July to mitigate adverse effects on ESA-listed fall chinook.

After NOAA Fisheries reworked its survival analysis that increased adverse effects, and also refused to allow a pumped-up pikeminnow program to count as an offset to ESA losses, the spill proposal duration was reduced to fit a new offset pushed by the federal fish folks. So, more water in July (100 KAF) from Brownlee Reservoir will be released in July to help later-migrating juveniles.

Spending $4 million for the extra Brownlee water has a few participants shaking their heads. Though the NOAA Fisheries' analysis points to positive benefits for fish, the proposal included no documentation to back it up. It was reported that sample sizes in the feds' data were very small.

Other studies don't seem so positive. In 2000, the University of Washington's Columbia Basin Research published a report commissioned by Idaho water users that found the highest Snake River fall chinook survivals "were predicted with no Brownlee Reservoir flows augmentation."

The study found more Brownlee water didn't reduce temperatures, but probably increased them. Nor did added flows from Brownlee help fish migrate faster past hungry predators like pikeminnow, since the researchers said river flows were not related to fall chinook travel time.

Wright said all offsets were expected to cost about $10 million. He pegged the net benefit at $20 million to $31 million. But the power agency has already increased the pikeminnow program to help offset losses to non-listed species, and is planning to further reduce river fluctuations to help limit stranding of juvenile fall chinook in the Hanford Reach. BPA was also making funds available for hatchery and habitat improvement. The sum of all the non-listed offset actions was estimated to add 1.3 million to 1.6 million more juveniles, making up for potential losses that ranged from 130,000 to 742,000 juveniles in a total non-listed fall run of about 50 million fish.

"If implemented," said Wright, "we would expect the financial benefit would result in about a one to two percent decrease in Bonneville's rates from what they would otherwise."

Wright said more hydro generation in August would also reduce air pollution because of the 1000 MW that won't need to be generated by gas and oil-fired projects.

A new message from aluminum workers.

However, state agencies hadn't yet endorsed the offsets, though Washington fish officials were cautiously optimistic. It was reported that Gov. Gary Locke's office was prepared to support it.

NOAA Fisheries regional administrator Bob Lohn said his agency has judged that the ESA-listed Snake fall chinook would not be worse off "in any way" from this action. He said the stock "is in relatively good condition at the moment," with substantial increases in recent years, with help from hatchery fish that have supplemented wild spawners. He said when the fish were listed, about 300 fall chinook were counted. But now it's up to 20,000.

The extended NOAA analysis looked at potential impacts from early, middle, and late migrations, with low and high ranges of estimated impacts from reduced spill. The agency also adjusted those impacts from the lower-than-average flows expected this summer.

"We've tried to capture a whole range of uncertainty, and we believe we've done so," said Lohn, who said his agency applied the "best available science" to the task.

Under the best conditions, with the juvenile run size at about a million fish, and most being transported downstream anyway, NOAA estimated the spill proposal would impact about 143 juveniles migrating inriver. At worst, about 943 juveniles would be lost. Offsets from adding the Brownlee water ranged from 730 juveniles to 950 juveniles.

Lohn said when those additions were converted into returning adults, they translated into five to forty more returning fall chinook. However, a more realistic return would put that number around 10, which puts the value of each added ESA salmon around $400,000. The exercise still has critics grousing about the exercise attempting to quantify such small biological benefits, what one critic called "being lost in the decimal dust of the margins of error."

Buried in one of the appendixes to the proposal itself is the admission that the action agencies have deliberately overestimated adult return rates to mitigate for the risk and uncertainty in the analysis.

Still, that wasn't enough for environmental groups and some basin tribes, who fired off angry press releases hours before the proposal was released.

"BPA continues to cling to the concept simply to grab a few bucks in spite of the regional response," said Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. Hudson said the initial effort to cut spill only "created a lot of mistrust and ill will in the region as a result."

The environmental and fishing coalition Save Our Wild Salmon pointed to the 2001 spill reduction as a "major reason" why this year's spring run is 47 percent below expectations, another point pushed by tribal representatives.

Lohn surprised many during the June 8 press conference by tackling SOS' claims head on. When a TV reporter picked up that line of questioning, Lohn said he had to "respectfully disagree." He pointed out that the policy in question is concerned with fall chinook, and that most returns from the 2001 migration came back last year, which, as it turned out, was an extremely large run.

Both Lohn and Corps of Engineer's Brig. General William Grisoli noted that this approach was consistent with the adaptive management provisions of the biological opinion.

Environmental groups have already said they will sue NOAA Fisheries if it OKs the summer spill proposal. Earthjustice attorney Todd True told attorneys as much at an April 16 BiOp remand meeting, when he said he would file a motion to stop the proposal within a week or ten days of federal approval.

Utility groups said BPA didn't go far enough to cut spill. "The Administration and federal agencies missed another opportunity, based on good science, to help salmon and help our economy," said Shauna McReynolds, spokesperson for the Coalition for Smart Salmon Recovery. She said it was a step in the right direction and should be the start of a complete review of all our spending decisions regarding salmon recovery."

Last December, Lohn himself mentioned the puzzle over flows and fall chinook when he addressed the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. He pointed out research by USFWS scientist Billy Conner, who has been trying to determine whether higher flows help fall chinook through the lower Snake. The issue is confounded because improved survivals also correlate with increased turbidity and temperature and reduced travel time.

Lohn said Conner's results suggested that temperature is a driving factor in the fishes' survival. "Does adding more hot water help fish at all?" he asked. However, that question has become moot for the time being since the fish agency has temporarily blessed the Brownlee release as an offset for the miniscule estimated ESA fish losses. -Bill Rudolph


Former BPA administrator Randy Hardy said last week that the expensive summer spill strategy added to the 1995 BiOp had little to do with helping ESA-listed stocks, but was included to garner tribal support for the BiOp by helping non-listed Hanford Reach chinook past dams. The lower Columbia tribes' fall fishery mainly targets the healthy Hanford chinook run.

Hardy's remarks capped a three-hour comment session on the amended spill proposal that BPA and the Army Corps of Engineers announced June 8 . It has been reduced significantly from the original Mar. 30 proposal, but is still estimated to save ratepayers up to $30 million after paying a $10-million bill for offsets to make up for both listed and non-listed fish lost from reduced spill.

"I was there when the '95 B. O. went in," Hardy said at the June 14 public hearing in Portland, "... the administrator of BPA. I was there when we put summer spill in, it happened in the 95 B. O. And I am here to tell you that if you have a candid discussion with Bob's [NOAA Fisheries' regional head Bob Lohn] predecessors in his job, that was put in for reasons that had very little, if anything to do with listed fish.

"It was put in as a measure to assist, principally, the tribal harvest for the non-listed fish down river," Hardy said. "It was a means by the prior administration to politically balance, you know, a difficult question since the tribes weren't going to support the B.O. anyway. And that's a fact.

"We had a little data at the time that said this might work," Hardy added. "We've got more data in subsequent years that said yeah, there's a benefit, but it is clearly tangential."

Hardy, who now serves as a power industry consultant, told the assembled group of state and federal representatives, tribes and public citizens that it was important to put the summer spill issue in historical context.

The latest version includes a $4-million deal with Idaho Power to pay for the release of 100 KAF of water in July to aid the passage of ESA-listed Snake River fall chinook, a strategy that federal biologists said could improve inriver survival through Lower Granite Reservoir by about one percent. Parties are now wrangling over whether the Brownlee water is really "new" water that BPA could claim for ESA offset credit, or if Idaho Power was planning on releasing it, anyway.

Hardy said he had hoped that policymakers would have taken more risk. "For listed fish, we are talking, in reality, about a range of probably, in the five to 10-fish adult return area. Those are four-to seven-million-dollar fish if we do not go ahead with this proposal."

Hardy said if policymakers don't go ahead with the action to reduce spill, it will just increase public cynicism of federal agencies and whether "appropriate balances" are struck or not. "Even if you go ahead with this, we are talking about one-million-dollar fish in terms of the amounts that are paid for the offsets."

Idaho and Montana representatives voiced support for the latest proposal, with Washington spokesman Larry Cassidy giving credit to the feds for the latest proposal, noting that non-listed stocks were now getting equal treatment with listed ones. Oregon remained somewhat uncommitted, though a representative from Gov. Kulongoski's office voiced general support for the idea.

The feds heard from most of BPA's largest customers, including Snohomish PUD, irrigators, and the Pacific Northwest Generating Cooperative. All called the proposal a step in the right direction, but not nearly enough.

"We believe this is overly conservative as it goes to extraordinary lengths to assist even more fish than the small number supposedly impacted from the spill reduction out of the millions of total smolts," said PNGC Power vice-president Scott Corwin.

But tribal representatives called for the federal agencies to take the proposal off the table and promised to sue if they did not. The tribes said proposed offsets were still not enough to make up for fish losses from reduced spill.

Two-legged salmon appeared in Portland.

The feds had pointed out in their latest proposal that spill was reduced from the earlier version, but not the impacts to non-listed fish, which effectively inflated their offsets.

But that argument had little effect on some attendees. Both tribes and fishing groups complained at the June 14 meeting about the numbers of fish that would be lost to harvesters and discounted the value of such offsets as the programs to reduce stranding of Hanford Reach chinook and get rid of more smolt-eating pikeminnow through a pumped-up bounty program.

In fact, the Nez Perce Tribe announced that same day they were filing a lawsuit to block one of the proposed offsets, a measure suggested by WDFW to fund them to keep 200,000 Lyons Ferry hatchery chinook over the winter and release them the following spring, which would significantly improve their survival to adulthood. The strategy was estimated to add another 1,600 adults to Lower Granite Dam.

But the tribe said the proposed offset was a breach of a federal agreement under the US v. Oregon process and would adversely affect management of chinook fisheries overseen by the salmon treaty between the US and Canada. Later that day, state officials decided to release the fish this June as originally planned.

Some fishing groups, both sport and commercial, were also critical of the amended proposal, citing concerns over the projected benefits that the action agencies had estimated from their offset actions to non-listed stocks, pegged at a midrange of around 10,000 fish.

But Oliver Waldman, representing the Astoria-based commercial fishing group Salmon For All, thought the offsets were unconvincing and claimed the spill proposal would cut chinook numbers to Southeast Alaska, Northern BC coastal fishermen and inriver Columbia gillnetters by 14,000 to 23,000 fish. He said later that the numbers came from a preliminary analysis by the Pacific Salmon Commission, but staffers there said they were not aware of any such analysis.

NOAA scientist Dell Simmons, who co-chairs the salmon commission's chinook technical committee said it was likely a staffer from a member organization who ran the group's model, and that's exactly what happened. A staffer from the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission came up with the potential harvest impacts used in Waldman's testimony, an analysis that did not add any fish from the potential offsets discussed in the amended proposal.

This preliminary analysis pegged the harvest losses in the 2-percent range for Alaska and BC, and about double that for Columbia River fisheries, with even higher losses with more pessimistic assumptions about flow and delayed mortality.

Waldman's testimony failed to mention that the potential 14,000-fish loss is a drop in the bucket compared to the nearly 600,000 chinook that Southeast AK and northern BC fishermen will be allowed to catch this year, or the approximately 160,000 fish expected to be landed from this year's upriver Columbia River run by both treaty and non-treaty fishers.

The spill proposal is likely to be ready for formal ESA review by Wednesday, which would take another week or two, with a final decision expected by the Corps of Engineers by the end of the month. NOAA Fisheries regional head Bob Lohn has already informally endorsed the amended proposal. -B. R.


Earlier this month, BiOp judge James Redden told parties to the remand process that he was concerned about the new tack the federal government has taken in its quest to complete a new biological opinion for the hydro system. At the June 4 steering committee meeting in Portland, Redden said if the new BiOp didn't fit into the order of the remand, it "could cause a train wreck."

Redden candidly voiced his concern about whether the government was even able to pay for BiOp actions, and wondered whether the feds were abandoning the task of addressing the BiOp alternatives "in favor of the new analytical framework."

NOAA Fisheries has announced it will change the analytical structure from the old BiOp, which includes effects of dam construction as well as operations, to one that simply looks at effects of dam operations on fish.

But Redden said if the government goes with the new baseline, and hence a new BiOp, he wanted someone to explain how the feds could come up with a new jeopardy finding, or non-finding, "and still comply with the remand."

Justice Department attorney Fred Disheroon said there was a misunderstanding about what was going on.

The baseline has not been changed, he told the judge, but to comply with Redden's finding "speculative matters could not be taken into account." He said the government has to go back to a "standard approach," which calls for differentiating between effects of the dams' existence and effects of the operations.

"So NOAA has gone back and is essentially doing a standard biological opinion," said Disheroon. "But it has not changed the baseline. It is providing for definition, it is changing back from the hundred-year approach to one that conforms with the regulations."

Earthjustice attorney Todd True said the parties were now in a "different ball game" than anyone had anticipated. Plaintiffs are concerned that by focusing on operations, analyses of the hydro system's effects on ESA-listed Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead stocks will be less severe than conclusions of the earlier analysis, which found that offsite mitigation was necessary to each a no-jeopardy decision for the hydro system.

Redden had ruled more than a year ago that the 2000 BiOp was illegal because it relied on some actions, namely, offsite mitigation, for fish losses that weren't reasonably certain to occur. But after weeks of collaborative efforts, True said "we found ourselves in an entirely new world."

Attorneys representing Washington and Oregon also expressed concern about the government's new direction, and supported the notion of having the feds produce a "white paper" delineating the differences in the analytical framework between the old and new BiOp. Disheroon said a draft BiOp will be completed by Aug. 30, which should suffice. Redden reluctantly agreed that there wasn't much he could do until it comes out. By the end of the meeting, Redden said his concerns had been allayed. -B. R.


Columbia River tribal fishers began their commercial summer platform fishery last week with hoopnets, dipnets and hook and line. They will be allowed to catch a bit more than 5,000 fish from an expected summer chinook run (fish that pass Bonneville dam between June 1 and July 31) of 103,000 fish.

Harvest managers also expect about 80,000 sockeye to return to the upper Columbia, which means the tribes can catch 7 percent of that run.

Sports fishers began a summer fishery as well, from Tongue Point, near Astoria to the Oregon-Washington border above McNary Dam. They will be allowed to catch hatchery chinook longer than 24 inches through July 31.

The pre-season prognosticators estimated that about 34,000 summers would be bound for the Snake River, with the rest headed up the upper Columbia.

The fall run is expected to be strong again this year as well, with over 600,000 chinook expected to enter the river. Last year's 885,000-fish return was the biggest since 1948.

The upriver bright run headed for the Hanford Reach is pegged at more than 290,000 fish, which would make it the fourth consecutive year over 200,000 fish and the fourth largest return since 1964. -B. R.


Though many Northwest watersheds finally saw precip level above normal, the wet weather that May brought did little to ease the water supply forecast. The latest update to the April-Sept. forecast for the Columbia River above The Dalles is up to about 80 percent of average, but better upstream at Grand Coulee where it's 85 percent of average. On the BC side, it's even higher, with April-Sept. inflow to Mica Reservoir pegged at 94 percent of average.

However, the Snake River Basin is another story, with April-July inflows to Lower Granite Reservoir estimated at only 71 percent of average. The April-July numbers for the Clearwater Basin at Orofino are 94 percent of average, but in the Snake's Hells Canyon, the April-July water supply was estimated at only 41 percent of normal.

The Yakima Basin was better off with 83 percent of its average water supply expected through September.

So far, a rainy June in some parts of the region helped to ease water concerns as well, with central Washington getting 191 percent of average precipitation and the southeast part of the state getting 206 percent of its average. Overall, the Columbia Basin above The Dalles saw 140 percent of average precip for the month, with places like the Clearwater and Upper John Day basins getting 200 percent of average precipitation. -B. R.


The state of Montana's request to cut extra flows from one of its major reservoirs to aid ESA-listed sturgeon has been turned down by the fish managers who make up part of the Technical Management Team, the weekly forum that guides real-time hydro operations.

The state said the higher outflows from Libby weren't justified given the current water supply forecast of 76 percent of average, which has dropped 3 percent since May. Noting that the planned increase for sturgeon was based on an earlier, more optimistic forecast, the state said the water supply prediction is now below the threshold where the sturgeon BiOp calls for augmentation. The state would like to reduce flows from 15 kcfs to around 12 kcfs for the rest of the summer, to conserve more water for salmon and bull trout.

"The planned ramp up of flows at Libby over the next few weeks will put both summer flows for salmon and bull trout at risk," said the state in its official June 14 request.

But US Fish and Wildlife Service representative Bob Hallock said two sturgeon had recently spawned and flows added been ramped up slightly to avoid de-watering the sturgeon eggs. Only six sturgeon have been reported to spawn in the region since 1991.

The TMT managers supported continuing the sturgeon pulse and discuss July and August flow strategies at this week's meeting.

Montana will likely ask the TMT to re-consider the action again later this year, said Ed Bartlett, one of the state's representatives to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

Bartlett also expected to hear word later this week on the state's call for reduced flow augmentation to aid ESA stocks migrating in the mainstem Columbia River. The evaluation of such a strategy is being discussed by action agencies and NOAA Fisheries. The state maintains that more level outflows would improve conditions for the state's resident fish populations, including listed bull trout. -B. R.

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