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NW Fishletter #272, March 17, 2010

[1] Water Supply Keeps Dropping, Fish Ops May Change

With the Columbia River's water supply shrinking at each updated forecast, Basin stakeholders are jockeying for position in a battle over fish barging that is still largely going on outside of the public's purview.

The Feb. 25 forecast from NOAA's Northwest River Forecast Center pegged the January-July water supply at The Dalles at 69 percent of average, a few percent lower than their previous forecast. On Mar. 5, it dropped even further, to 67 percent, which would make 2010 the 4th driest out of the last 50 years.

But further upriver on the Snake, conditions are much worse. The January-July forecast for inflow at Lower Granite has dropped to 57 percent of average.

That means average spring flows will likely be below 65 kcfs on the lower Snake, and the possibility of suspending BiOp Judge James Redden's court-ordered spill regime in favor of the hydro BiOp's own prescription to aid fish in low-flow years--putting more in barges to keep them out of an increasingly hostile hydro system where low flows and higher water temperatures sap their strength and make them more vulnerable to predators like pikeminnow and terns.

On Feb. 25, NOAA Fisheries released a plan for doing just that (see story 2).

Northwest RiverPartners, the large coalition of river users, made up of farmers, municipalities, utilities and ports, has called for following the dictates of the 2008 BiOp to barge more smolts and start transporting them earlier.

"Barging as many fish as possible could be a lifesaver this year," said NRP executive director Terry Flores in the coalition's February newsletter.

Flores noted that a previous NMFS analysis found that the judge's added spill at dams, which reduces the number of fish guided to barges, would reduce overall steelhead returns by 14 percent and spring chinook returns by 3 percent when flows on the lower Snake were between 65 kcfs and 80 kcfs. Average flows that time of year are around 82 kcfs.

That analysis by the feds was actually contained in court documents filed in December 2008, as part of a declaration by Corps of Engineers' biologist Rock Peters.

It also found that if flows stayed below 65 kcfs, the benefits of barging steelhead actually decreased from 14 percent down to a mere 4 percent over the judge's spill regime.

The result sounds somewhat counter-intuitive, but one biologist familiar with the COMPASS model used by the feds said it's probably because the juvenile steelhead start their migration much later in a low-flow year, so starting the transportation program earlier in the season wouldn't really capture that many more fish.

In late January, NOAA Fisheries biologist Ritchie Graves told NW Fishletter that if the current forecast played out, spring flows at Lower Granite would likely be below 65 kcfs this year, which is the 2008 BiOp's threshold for beginning a maxed-out barging policy on April 3 and continuing it until the end of May. That would mean no spill at dams where the fish were collected.

The water supply forecast has dropped another 7 percent since Graves made his pronouncement, but that hasn't stopped spill advocates from marshalling their forces behind a recent memo from the Fish Passage Center.

The Feb. 9 memo takes issue with a recent NOAA Fisheries review of transport that found significant benefits from barging in most years, and also wades into the debate over whether to boost barging this spring.

The FPC memo itself doesn't say that barging more steelhead will be detrimental to adult returns, it just points out that if spill is curtailed to allow more fish in barges, that might have adverse consequences for other salmon species like sockeye and coho, for which we have little to no data, and could be bad for juvenile lamprey as well.

The FPC memo says keeping spill in place at dams where fish are collected for barging will improve adult returns of inriver migrants--it just doesn't point out what its own graphs clearly show, that wild and hatchery steelhead return rates were still two times higher when the fish were barged in 2007--when the judge's enhanced spill program was firmly in place, and five to ten times better before then.

The debate will soon go into stealth mode as parties convene in the RIOG process--when the Regional Implementation Oversight Group made up of sovereigns and federal agencies meets to hash out this year's operations in secret.

But fish and dam managers are increasingly aware of NMFS' latest research on the barging issue. In a Feb. 17 presentation at the weekly meeting of the Technical Management Team, where fish and dam managers get together to discuss operations, NMFS scientists said via PowerPoint that recent operations (more spill) had improved the performance of inriver migrants, "and lessened differences in SARs between transports and migrants with a transport benefit occurring later in the season (see at TMT website).

"However, transport still returns more adults for most stocks, especially later in the migration season, so transporting fewer fish in recent years has resulted in substantially fewer adult fish returning" [Bill Rudolph].

The following links were mentioned in this story:

TMT website

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