Court Orders More Spill, Allows Spending At Lower Snake River Dams
U.S. District Judge Michael Simon ordered federal agencies to spill more water at Columbia and Snake river dams next spring to protect juvenile salmon and steelhead.
The judge's March 27 decision, however, stopped short of banning capital spending at four lower Snake River dams.
In January, plaintiff conservation groups and the State of Oregon filed motions for additional spill and to stop capital spending, not related to safety, at the four dams. The Nez Perce Tribe supported the proposed injunction for increased spill.
The motions came in National Wildlife Federation et al. v. National Marine Fisheries Service et al. [01-640], the continuing litigation over federal dam operations on the Columbia and Snake rivers.
The federal defendants, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and NOAA Fisheries (aka National Marine Fisheries Service), intervenor-defendant Northwest RiverPartners and numerous other intervenor groups opposed the National Wildlife Federation motions.
The plaintiffs asked for the spill injunction to start this spring, but Simon ruled that more planning time was needed to avoid unintended outcomes.
Since the federal court ordered increased spill in 2005, spill operations at eight federal dams on the main-stem Columbia and Snake rivers begin each year on April 3.
In oral arguments in Portland March 9, federal defendants said rushing the decision to increase spill amounts even further this year was problematic because changes can create eddies or other flow issues that might obstruct both juvenile and adult migration and negatively affect navigation through the locks.
Intervenor-defendant Inland Ports and Navigation conceded at oral argument that a year's preparation for increased spill would resolve its concerns regarding human safety.
In his written opinion, Simon said spill has long been studied by scientists and salmon managers. As examples of this, he singled out the Comparative Survival Study and a 2014 Independent Scientific Advisory Board report, both discussed by the opposing parties.
Scientists conducting the interagency, multiple-year Comparative Survival Study are convinced that increased spill is significantly beneficial. While the ISAB is less certain, it and others have recommended testing increased spill.
The judge said that even the State of Washington, one of the entities opposing additional spill, "acknowledged a growing scientific body of evidence and growing consensus supporting higher levels of spill.
"Despite these widespread calls for testing increased spill, the federal defendants do not appear to have crafted any such experiment," Simon wrote.
The judge, however, did not convince Terry Flores that a spill test was worthwhile. The executive director of Northwest RiverPartners questioned the science behind the decision and said the spill would result in higher electric bills and "do little or nothing--perhaps even harm--salmon."
Northwest RiverPartners also found the court's ruling on spending at the lower Snake River dams onerous.
The court decision "not only prescribes how the federal dams should be operated, but also signals the court's willingness to make decisions on what investments should be made at the Snake dams," Flores said in a statement.
In his order, the judge concluded that spending millions of dollars on the four dams was likely to bias the environmental review the court ordered in May 2016.
While the judge did not enjoin any pending or future capital projects, he said plaintiffs had the option of filing new motions to stop such projects.
"The ruling clearly indicates a preference to remove these projects [dams]," Flores said.
Proponents had a different take on the court's latest decision. Kevin Lewis, executive director of Idaho Rivers United, said in a statement it was unfortunate to have to go to court to get federal agencies to do more for endangered wild salmon.
"It's equally disturbing that the federal government continues to pour tens of millions of dollars into propping up four obsolete dams on the lower Snake River. It's simultaneously encouraging, however, that a federal judge has once again agreed with us," Lewis said.
The dams affected by the spill order are the four federal dams on the lower Columbia River--Bonneville, The Dalles, John Day and McNary--and the four federal dams on the lower Snake River--Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Ice Harbor.
Even though juvenile fish also pass five dams on the mid-Columbia--Priest Rapids, Wanapum, Rock Island, Rocky Reach and Wells--neither the court's order nor the litigation include these FERC-licensed PUD dams. -Laura Berg
 Adult Coho Expected To Return To Grande Ronde Basin By Fall 2018
After a 30-year absence, coho have been put back into the Grande Ronde River basin.
The Nez Perce Tribe and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife recently released a half-million juvenile coho into Lostine River, a Grande Ronde tributary in northeastern Oregon, according to a March 9 news statement.
The first adult coho from this reintroduction effort are expected to return to the Lostine River in fall 2018.
The Nez Perce Tribe's planning for the reintroduction started in 1988 with BPA funding. Implementation was developed through the U.S. v. Oregon Management Agreement and funded by the Mitchell Act and Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund.
The juvenile coho were reared at the Cascade Hatchery near Bonneville Dam and transported to the Lostine River for release.
"Our tribe has worked towards this day for nearly three decades and it is wonderful to see the fruits of that labor," Mary Jane Miles, chair of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, said in the statement.
The Nez Perce and ODFW anticipate that coho will recolonize the Wallowa and Lostine rivers and, eventually, the Grande Ronde and its other tributaries. The Grande Ronde River is part of the Snake River basin.
The two partners are also hoping that the coho will help supply treaty Indian and non-Indian harvests on the Columbia River. -Laura Berg
 Hatchery Fish Released Early To Avoid High Gas Levels From Dworshak Dam
Dworshak and Clearwater hatcheries in the Snake River Basin reluctantly released juvenile Chinook and steelhead starting March 20, several weeks earlier than normal.
The decision was forced by a combination of high runoff and a major turbine repair resulting in large volumes of water being spilled at Dworshak Dam during February and early March.
Water roaring over the spillway causes high levels of dissolved gas that can injure or even kill juvenile salmonids.
At one of many March meetings of the Technical Management Team (TMT), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it needed to reverse course and hold back more water at Dworshak Dam to prevent local flooding and flooding farther downstream.
The Corps reduced outflows from 23,500 cfs to 7,500 cfs over three days, March 17-20.
The hiatus in high flows and high total dissolved gas (TDG) provided a window for hatchery managers to release juvenile Chinook and steelhead into the Clearwater River, a tributary of the Snake River.
Hatchery representatives attending TMT meetings over the previous week said the Chinook and, particularly, the steelhead juveniles were not mature enough for release into the river.
Yet if hatchery managers waited until they were sufficiently mature, high flows and spill--and the accompanying high TDG levels--would be back. Steve Hall, the Corps' Walla Walla District reservoir manager, told TMT members that within several days flows would reach 25,000 cfs and would likely remain high through April.
Normally, more flow would be coursing through hydroelectric turbines, including through Unit 3, the largest of three generating turbines at Dworshak Dam. But Unit 3 has been off line for repair since September.
The Corps is letting water go at high rates to make room in the reservoir behind Dworshak for a spring runoff that is expected to be 118 percent of average this year.
Dworshak National Fish Hatchery Complex, jointly operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Nez Perce Tribe, released some 1 million juvenile Chinook into the Clearwater River March 20. Releases were also made at the Clearwater Fish Hatchery, an Idaho Department of Fish and Game facility.
About half of the juvenile steelhead from Dworshak hatchery were released early on March 21, with the rest of the steelhead smolts planned for release in mid-April.
The high spill-induced levels of TDG in the river also produce high levels of gas in downstream hatchery facilities. Degassing equipment at Dworshak hatchery kept TDG levels at about 105 percent compared to 120 percent TDG and more in the river.
Over the past 10 days, as spill and TDG levels rose, hatchery representatives told TMT members that juvenile fish were showing signs of gas-bubble trauma.
The Clearwater hatchery has less of a TDG problem because it doesn't draw water from the same Clearwater River source as the Dworshak hatchery. In fact, the Clearwater hatchery will truck some of its nearly gas-free water to the Dworshak facility to improve conditions for the juvenile steelhead that will be released in mid-April.
In addition to spill and a high TDG problem at Dworshak dam--a one-off issue triggered by the Unit 3 outage--dam and fish managers have been going round and round at TMT about the appropriate level and timing of holding water back versus letting it go.
While acknowledging flood control trumps the needs of both fish and power generation, some fish managers have questioned the need to maintain high outflows to empty the Dworshak reservoir now.
The dam operators, the Corps and BPA, have said waiting to bring down reservoir levels risks not having enough space for spring runoff--an impermissible risk under federal flood-control rules.
On the bright side, this year's high flows could help juvenile Chinook, steelhead and other salmonids make a speedy downstream journey to saltwater. Generally, the quicker fish get to the ocean the better their chance of survival. -Laura Berg
 Scientists OK Six Large Columbia Basin Habitat Projects, With Caveats
The Independent Scientific Review Panel said six major habitat projects that are part of the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Program met scientific-review criteria, with qualifications.
The ISRP presented its findings at the Northwest Power and Conservation Council meeting March 14.
In its March 10 report, the ISRP concluded that although projects have made significant improvements in developing comprehensive landscape approaches to restoration, more progress is called for in adopting ecological-based whole watershed, or ridgetop-to-valley-bottom, restoration.
For example, the report said, habitat projects need to address "upstream and upslope factors that can have major influences on meeting aquatic habitat restoration objectives."
Presenting before the Council, the panel Chairman Steve Schroder said habitat projects needed to develop formal adaptive processes to help in refining restoration work and for learning to take place.
Also, projects need to quantify the status of and trends in habitat conditions and fish populations at a landscape scale, and in a way that links them to the habitat-restoration activities, he said.
The six large-scale projects, which were last reviewed in 2013, were:
Schroder said that just two of the projects--the Columbia estuary and Willamette ventures--used adaptive-management and program-progress assessments requiring quantitative objectives with timelines. One other, the Tucannon River project, had quantitative objectives but no established deadlines for completion, he said.
These six projects solicit proposals and make grants for restoration work in their target areas. The Council refers to these BPA-funded programs as umbrella projects. A seventh umbrella project, not part of the March 10 assessment, is the Columbia Basin Water Transactions Program.
The ISRP report identified obstacles to evaluating progress through adaptive management, including requirements for quantitative objectives with clear timelines and "appropriate monitoring, access to monitoring data, and an explicit plan for evaluating and documenting outcomes."
Monitoring, learning the results of habitat monitoring and paying for them are issues the Council has been grappling with for some time. This issue was not lost on the ISRP scientists.
Schroder said that in some instances, even though the habitat-effectiveness monitoring programs CHaMP, ISEMP and AEM were operating in the umbrella project areas, "data that could help to examine effectiveness was difficult to obtain."
(CHaMP is the Columbia Habitat Monitoring Program; ISEMP, the Integrated Status and Effectiveness Monitoring Program; and AEM, the Action Effectiveness Monitoring of Tributary Habitat Improvement.)
He also underscored the importance of monitoring in evaluating landscape-scale restoration actions.
The report said that monitoring and evaluation at a landscape scale "may require additional technical capacity beyond what currently exists for some umbrella projects."
For fiscal year 2017, the budget estimate for the six projects is about $15 million, Erik Merrill, the Council's manager of independent scientific review, told NW Fishletter in an email.
Schroder said that although the ISRP recommended more coordination with a leader in habitat rehabilitation, the U.S. Forest Service, "one of the universal strengths of the umbrella programs is their community involvement and networking." -Laura Berg
 NASA Tests Snow-Sensing Technologies To Improve Water Supply Forecasts
Accurately measuring how much snow is on the ground and how water is stored in that snow is still a challenge for scientists.
NASA is working on changing that. On Feb. 16, the agency announced it had completed its first flights in a multi-year research effort to ascertain which technologies work best to measure snow in different conditions.
The research campaign, called SnowEx, is being conducted in Grand Mesa, Colo. The location was chosen for its varying forest-cover densities.
Having accurate and available measurements is key to forecasting in the Northwest, where most of the annual streamflow for drinking water, hydropower, fish and irrigation comes from mountain snow pack.
"While the results are a long way off, they could be helpful in our region," said Kevin Berghoff, a hydrologist with the Northwest River Forecast Center.
Detecting snow through trees and occasional vandalism to equipment can be problems in the Northwest, where remote and usually high-elevation SNOTEL sites rely on sensors to measure precipitation and temperatures, which are then transmitted via radio signal to recording stations.
This year's conditions highlight another problem, Berghoff told NW Fishletter. "We don't have a good handle on the amount of snow we have at lower elevations."
In parts of the Snake River basin, there have been record amounts of snow at high elevations. But there are no good estimates of how much has accumulated at lower levels, making it difficult to predict run-off volumes and potential flooding, Berghoff said.
The NASA research could make a difference if it gives us more clues on lower-elevation snow, he said.
According to a NASA news statement, satellites have so far been unreliable in determining the snow-water equivalent (SWE), which is the amount of water the snowpack holds.
Currently, SWE can be measured in the field or calculated using a combination of remote sensing observations and modeling, as is done in the Northwest.
NASA research flights will carry a range of remote-sensing instruments, including microwave sensors that measure SWE in dry snow; thermal infrared cameras and remote thermometers for calculating surface temperature; and laser devices that measure snow depth.
Another important device on board will be an imaging spectrometer that measures snow albedo--the amount of sunlight reflected and absorbed by snow, which determines the speed of snowmelt and runoff timing.
With changes in the climate and different rates and timing of snowmelt, the information collected by an imaging spectrometer could have a far-reaching impact. Changes in snowmelt patterns can affect spring flooding, stream temperatures and water supplies.
NASA and its team of cooperating scientists from across the United States and elsewhere will evaluate how each sensor performs in measuring snowpack and its properties and how the sensors could best work together.
The knowledge gleaned from these multiple-sensor flights will be used to shape a space-based mission to measure snow across the earth, according to the NASA news statement. It will also help in figuring out how measurements from existing satellites that are designed for other purposes could be used to evaluate global snow-water equivalents.
This past fall the NASA research program flew a lidar device to determine baseline pre-snow conditions. Incorporated in the research is a thorough ground-truthing program of field measurements and sampling that will validate sensor data.
Meanwhile, in the Northwest, the best information available indicates this year's snowpack in the Columbia basin and west of the Cascades is significantly above average. Hydrologists and meteorologists hope they are working with good numbers that can help regional managers handle runoff, water supply and reservoir storage. -Laura Berg
 Groups To Sue Corps Over Hatchery Effects On Wild Steelhead In Willamette River Basin
Alleging hatchery summer steelhead are preventing recovery of Willamette River wild winter steelhead, two conservation groups notified the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers they would be suing within 60 days.
In a March 13 news release, Willamette Riverkeeper and The Conservation Angler said new information indicates hatchery summer steelhead originally from the Washougal River are harming the Willamette River basin's native winter steelhead.
Willamette River wild winter steelhead have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 1999.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife raises and releases the hatchery summer steelhead with funding from the Corps. The funding is mitigation for damage done to wild winter steelhead from 13 Corps dams in the Willamette basin.
David Moskowitz of The Conservation Angler said in the news statement that hatchery and wild fish are spawning and producing less successful offspring, while the Angler's Bill Bakke emphasized that the hatchery fish are preying on wild juvenile steelhead and spring Chinook and competing for food and rearing space.
The pending litigation seeks to compel the Corps to begin an ESA consultation with NOAA Fisheries over the hatchery summer steelhead program. -Laura Berg
 NW Power Council Cost Savings For 2016 Is $652,000
The Northwest Power and Conservation Council's Cost Savings Workgroup identified $651,915 in fish and wildlife savings in 2016.
The savings came from BPA-administered projects that were either closing out or reducing spending in fiscal year 2016.
The 2014 Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Program recommended BPA fund new fish and wildlife obligations from savings identified in the current program.
Most new fish and wildlife actions needed in the basin are outlined in the program's emerging priorities.
To date, the Council has reallocated cost savings to fund these FY 2017 emerging-priority projects: a habitat assessment above Chief Joseph Dam ($100,000), northern pike suppression in Lake Roosevelt ($40,000), and infrastructure and operation-critical work at BPA-funded hatcheries ($200,00).
With these projects funded, the balance left for FY 2017 is $300,000. At the Council's March 14 meeting, the workgroup recommended spending up to $300,000 of the savings on sturgeon projects.
Measures to improve sturgeon populations in reservoirs upstream of Bonneville Dam are also part of the program's emerging-priority strategy.
The Council received preliminary proposals for seven sturgeon projects earlier this year and forwarded them to the Independent Scientific Review Panel for an initial review, which was completed March 7.
This year thus far, Council and BPA staffs have found potential savings of just over $400,000. If the funds are approved for reallocation, they would not be made available until FY 2018.
The cost-savings group is recommending phasing out a study of stray hatchery steelhead and their reproductive influence on Deschutes River steelhead. An unexpected decline in hatchery strays entering the Deschutes River has muted the study's significance. The savings over three years would be about $330,000.
Another $78,000 could be set aside from a spring Chinook captive brood program that is "ramping down," a staff report said.
The cost savings workgroup includes Montana Council Member Jennifer Anders, BPA Fish and Wildlife Program Manager Bryan Mercier, and Council Fish and Wildlife Division Director Tony Grover. -Laura Berg
 PGE Loses Bid To Dismiss Suit Over Deschutes River Water Quality
Upholding a state's authority to enforce water-quality standards, U.S. District Judge Michael Simon ruled March 27 against Portland General Electric's request to dismiss a suit brought by the Deschutes River Alliance.
In the case [16-cv-01644], the alliance alleges violations of the Clean Water Act at the utility's Pelton Round Butte hydroelectric complex on the Deschutes River.
PGE operations at the three dams are hurting salmonids and compromising the ecological integrity of the central Oregon river, the group claims.
The court said Section 401 of the CWA means citizens may sue to require a facility not only to obtain certification, but also to enforce compliance with an existing certification.
PGE argued that only FERC authority to enforce Section 401 water-quality requirements once a dam has obtained a license.
Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and Washington Department of Ecology appeared as amici curiae in the proceeding.
At dispute are alleged problems caused by the utility's selective water-withdrawal tower built in 2007 to create flows that attract migrating juvenile salmon and steelhead downstream.
The water-withdrawal system is warming the river, the alliance says, and reducing the river's native cold-water fish populations.
The suit will now proceed on the merits; a court schedule is pending. -Laura Berg
 Sea Lions Ate Lots Of Salmonids In Bonneville Pool In Early 2016
From January through May 2016, California and Steller sea lions took the largest portion of the spring Chinook and steelhead runs since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began documenting sea lion presence and consumption in the Columbia River.
Some 190 sea lions were counted at the Bonneville Dam tailrace in 2016. These pinnipeds ate 9,525 spring Chinook and steelhead, or 5.8 percent of the runs.
The Corps' report, released in February 2017, said a larger number of pinnipeds, some 264, were observed at the dam in 2015. But at 4.5 percent of the salmonid runs, the 2015 pinniped consumption of spring Chinook and steelhead was less than in 2016.
Sea lions also eat lamprey and sturgeon. The Corps recorded sea lions consuming 501 Pacific lamprey and 90 juvenile sturgeon in 2016.
Steller sea lions start arriving at the dam as early as January, while California sea lions show up in March and peak in early May. By the end of May, most sea lions are gone, headed to coastal breeding areas.
Some salmonids taken by pinnipeds are protected under the Endangered Species Act, including Snake River spring/summer Chinook.
Earlier this month, a pinniped task force organized by NOAA Fisheries found that hazing sea lions was not discouraging the animals and should end except in the dam's fish ladders. Hazing consists of harassing the animals with gunshot warnings and loud noise.
Exclusion gates installed at fish-ladder entrances and barrier gates at the second powerhouse's fish channel have deterred more sea lions than has hazing.
According to the Pinniped-Fishery Interaction Task Force, the most successful prevention activity has been the removal of individually identified predatory California sea lions; Steller sea lions are ESA protected, and so cannot be removed.
Since 2008, 166 sea lions have been removed, either by relocation to zoos or euthanasia.
The task force will soon make recommendations to NOAA Fisheries that will be the basis of a potentially new course of action for sea lion removal. -Laura Berg
 Nez Perce Tribal Member Jaime Pinkman New CRITFC Executive Director
Nez Perce tribal member Jaime Pinkman became the 10th executive director of the 40-year old Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
Pinkham has a background in tribal governance and natural resources, including salmon restoration, water rights negotiations and wolf recovery. Most recently he served as vice-president of the Bush Foundation in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he helped tribes redesign their governance systems. He worked for CRITFC as its watershed manager from 2005 to 2008.
Leaders of CRITFC's member tribes--the Warm Springs, Umatilla, Yakama, and Nez Perce--selected Pinkham to succeed Paul Lumley who retired last October. -Laura Berg
THE ARCHIVE :: Previous NW Fishletter issues and supporting documents.
NW Fishletter is produced by Energy NewsData.
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