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NW Fishletter #375, November 6, 2017

[1] Mitigation for Wildlife Losses From Hydro Ops Stalled by Uncertainty

A recently completed model for assessing wildlife losses caused by hydropower operations could be useful in assessing unmitigated wildlife impacts from many dams in the Federal Columbia River Power System, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council was told at its Oct. 10 meeting.

Although the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) created the Framework for Assessing Operational Losses for Libby Dam, it's likely to be useful in determining wildlife losses for projects, such as Albeni Falls and Grand Coulee dams, where water storage is important.

The Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Program and the Northwest Power Act itself call for mitigation from the continued operation of federal dams. The 2014 program emphasizes settlement agreements to resolve wildlife mitigation obligations.

Operational losses are different than those resulting from dam construction and inundation. Many construction and inundation losses have been settled, but only a handful of agreements include mitigation for operational damages.

BPA and Council staffs are in the process of identifying the current status of wildlife mitigation in the basin for each FCRPS dam. The compilation is scheduled to be available by 2018.

In a memorandum discussed at the Council's Sept. 12 meeting, Council staff said one of the hurdles to reaching mitigation agreements is that wildlife managers have disagreed on the nature of the technical analyses required to adequately describe wildlife impacts caused by FCRPS operations.

However, there is consensus that the effects vary broadly from hydropower project to hydropower project.

Staff said upper Columbia Basin dams used for water storage are thought to have created the greatest operational losses, and noted that these losses are not currently mitigated for.

BPA Wildlife Areas Assigned to FCRPS Dams. Credit: ISRP/CRITFC

The storage dams' large fluctuations in flow and reservoir elevation and their extensive alteration of river hydrology, floodplains, and transport of sediments and nutrients make "full quantification and characterization challenging," the memo said, noting that run-of-the-river dams in the lower Columbia River do not have the same dynamics.

This is where the Kootenai Tribe's "Framework for Assessing Operational Losses" comes in.

Alan Wood, MFWP wildlife mitigation coordinator, told the Council Oct. 10 that the framework has been tested and validated in the Flathead Basin, where Hungry Horse Dam impacts are felt, as well as in the Kootenai system, which is impacted by Libby Dam.

The Independent Scientific Review Panel and others have lauded the Kootenai's operational loss assessment approach as a model that could be adapted and applied elsewhere in the basin.

Evolving for more than a decade and costing some $700,000, the Kootenai wildlife project has encompassed not only the loss assessment, but also extensive mitigation planning and habitat restoration work.

The approach adopted by the tribe and MFWP "to operational loss assessment provides a model for others to emulate in the Columbia Basin, particularly since operational losses of wildlife have not been mitigated for in most basin areas," the ISRP said in its June 28, review of wildlife projects. (See Council Approves BPA-Funded Wildlife Projects With Strings.)

The Council staff seems to agree, with a caveat. "A methodology to assess the impacts of operational losses was developed and could be tested for applicability to other areas of the program, if the need arises," the Sept. 6 memo said.

So far, the Kootenai framework has only been adapted and tested for impacts from two hydro projects. And given the complexity, cost and questions over model inputs, BPA is encouraging operational loss settlements rather than assessments, Bryan Mercier, executive manager of the agency's fish and wildlife division, told NW Fishletter in an email.

"As time and funding allow, BPA will continue to address operational impacts through negotiated agreements based on best professional judgment and any relevant impact data available." He added, "To date, BPA has agreements that cover the operational impacts of all the Willamette [River] dams and half the impacts of the upper Snake River dams."

Both Mercier and the Council indicate the Columbia River System Operations EIS being developed in response to Judge Michael Simon's May 2016 ruling will study system-operation impacts of the 14 federal dams under scrutiny. Simon said the 2014 BiOp on FCRPS violated the National Environmental Policy Act, which triggered the need for a new EIS on the system of federal dams.

"The [EIS] may provide additional information on the location and extent of impacts, thus providing more accurate information to base settlement agreements upon, but that information will not be available until the completion of the EIS process in September 2021," Mercier said.

Meanwhile, a draft defining the EIS alternatives and modeling needs will be announced by the end of the year, according to a Columbia River System Operations newsletter. -Laura Berg

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