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NW Fishletter #323, October 14, 2013

[5] BPA Customers Call For Maintaining F&W Program Focus

BPA customer groups -- the Public Power Council, Northwest RiverPartners, PNGC Power, and Northwest Requirements Utilities -- are recommending policymakers maintain their focus on the financial bottom line when it comes to amending the Columbia River Basin's fish and wildlife program.

While many groups are calling for studies on whether salmon could be reintroduced above Grand Coulee Dam, what would happen if the lower Snake River dams were breached, or pushing expensive spill regimes of questionable benefit, Bonneville customers say the $260-million annual program is already big enough and costs should not increase.

"It is a mature program with a breadth that is appropriate for its purpose," said the customers, in their recommendations to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, which is in the process of amending the basin's F&W program, funded by BPA. They want the focus refined and improved, not expanded to include newer issues like invasive species and toxic contaminants -- which they say are far beyond the scope of the fish and wildlife program.

"The Council must resist pressure to move beyond the scope of funding in the NW Power Act that is focused on mitigating the effects of the [Federal Columbia River Power System]," said the customer groups. "The Program needs to be focused on the mandates in the Act in order to achieve what have become increasingly significant mitigation goals."

They also called for more scrutiny of research, monitoring and evaluation (RM&E) efforts, and ensuring the program doesn't conflict with legal and contractual obligations in the hydro BiOp and Fish Accords. "The Council needs to also recognize its responsibility to oversee the management of the program and critically evaluate scientific recommendations that have a tendency to recommend more study and ever increasing budgets for research, monitoring and evaluation."

They also want the Council to "establish a methodology to prioritize potential projects and reach agreement on the projects of highest priority prior to recommending them to BPA."

Regarding harvest issues, they said the Council should get more involved in them by only supporting hatchery production that doesn't conflict with conservation objectives. They also called for the implementation of recommendations from the Hatchery Scientific Review Group review several years ago. The recommendations got significant blowback from tribes and states, which said some of them were at odds with legal mandates.

The customer groups said the Council should support selective harvest methods that reduce impacts on ESA-listed and other naturally spawning fish, but increase the harvest of hatchery-origin stocks. "The Program should assess the extent to which harvest slows recovery of naturally reproducing populations and implement adaptive management strategies for harvest measures in the Program," they said.

The customers also said the Council should not establish "aspirational goals that lack scientific credibility," like the 2- to 6-percent smolt-to-adult return rates mentioned in the current program. The customers said SAR goals are beyond the scope of the Northwest Power Act because they include sources of mortality far beyond the hydro system. "The current SAR goals provide no function in the Program and are an inappropriate basis for the Council to base any decisions in the Program," they said.

The 2- to 6-percent recovery range SARs were borrowed from the contentious PATH process in the late 1990s, when regional biologists tried to figure out the major causes of fish declines in the Columbia Basin. The PATH people, in turn, had borrowed the 2- to 6-percent estimates of healthy returns from early National Marine Fisheries Service survival studies in the 1970s, involving freeze-brand studies that have never been successfully replicated. The original data from these studies, stored on IBM punch cards, was reportedly lost years ago after a warehouse flood.

In 2012, the region's independent science panel questioned whether that range of SARs was large enough to reach future recovery and harvest goals.

The customers also called the proposed spill "experiment" advocated by the state of Oregon, BiOp plaintiffs and the Nez Perce Tribe "illegal, inappropriate, and unnecessary," since current dissolved gas waivers would be violated to implement it. They said the Council and the program lack both authority and responsibility to recommend actions in violation of current Clean Water Act standards. They also noted that NOAA Fisheries has already judged that the spill proposal is based on a highly questionable analysis.

"The measured survivals of juvenile salmon and steelhead are at the practical upper limit and to achieve greater survivals will be well beyond the point of diminishing returns," said the customers. "This is why the program and the BiOp have extensive off-site mitigation as a very high priority."

The customers said the Council should keep the program within current budget limits, and if more spending is needed in some areas, then they could seek reductions in other areas "that may have outlived their purpose or usefulness within the program."

And since BPA is the final decider when it comes to the budget, the Council must coordinate with the power marketing agency on program planning and budgeting issues, they said. "The total budget for the direct program needs to be further allocated into broad funding categories such as RM&E, wildlife, anadromous and resident fish, etc."

Northwest RiverPartners specifically pointed to some current actions -- such as current ocean-based research, and the costs of coded-wire tagging programs for harvest management -- that it believes are outside the scope of the F&W program. NRP also called on the Council to support NOAA's position in the draft BiOp to increase fish transportation and use smarter spill, rather than the proposal by other stakeholders to simply increase it.

"The Council should reconcile the conflict between the Independent Science Advisory Board's recommendation and Judge Redden's prior spill orders in favor of utilizing best science, and follow the Draft 2013 FCRPS BiOp's approach to spill; when applied, the best available science would lead to 'smarter spill' at levels that better match the biological needs of the migrating fish."

NRP Executive Director Terry Flores said, "Based on a cursory review of amendment recommendations, it's clear many of the states, tribes and even some federal agencies, think that BPA's checkbook is the 'gift that just keeps giving.'

"Despite the $1 billion commitment to fish and wildlife made with the Fish Accords, many of the recommendations envision a huge expansion of the Council's program," Flores continued. "The Council has a tough job ahead and will need to be very disciplined and keep in mind its legal and fiduciary responsibilities as it sorts through them all."

RiverPartners told the Council not to readopt its prior spill regimes based on prior court orders because the "around the clock" four-month spill regime was a "blunt approach."

Instead, the group said, the spill should be "honed to balance both the biological risks and potential passage benefits of spill, to insure that unnecessary spill is not required when few fish are present at the hydropower projects, having already migrated past. This is particularly true in late August when juvenile fall Chinook from the Snake River are present in very small numbers and are generally not migrating past the hydropower projects."

The latest draft BiOp from NOAA Fisheries calls for this very strategy. -B. R.

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