NW Fishletter #378, February 5, 2018
  1. NOAA Fisheries Releases Snake River Basin Recovery Plan
  2. Judge OKs Spill Plan for Lower Columbia and Snake River Dams
  3. Capacity Metric Can Quantify Habitat Benefits, Idaho Experts Say

[1] NOAA Fisheries Releases Snake River Basin Recovery Plan

NOAA Fisheries released in late November its final recovery plan for three species of salmon and steelhead in the 107,000-square-mile Snake River Basin.

Eight years in the making, the recovery plan is a comprehensive strategy aimed at boosting survival throughout each species' life cycle, from reduced predation on juvenile fish to repair of degraded habitat to updated hatchery practices. It also specifies strategies to address the impacts of climate change.

The plan covers the fall Chinook run, the spring/summer Chinook run, and the "A" and "B" steelheads runs in summer and fall. Each species spawns in a different area and at different elevations in the basin.

The release of the Snake River plan completes NOAA Fisheries' blueprint for recovery of all ESA-listed salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin. A recovery plan for Snake River sockeye was adopted in June 2015.

Access to the species' historic spawning grounds in the basin has been blocked by hydroelectric dam development; approximately 2,500 miles of historical habitat has been lost to dams and storage ponds. Biologists estimate that only 20 to 30 percent of historically occupied Snake River subwatersheds are currently occupied by Snake River spring/summer Chinook salmon and steelhead, according to the plan.

NMFS estimates that recovery of the Snake River spring/summer Chinook salmon and steelhead, like recovery for most ESA-listed Northwest salmon and steelhead, could take 50 to 100 years. The total estimated cost of recovery actions for ESA-listed Snake River spring/summer Chinook salmon and steelhead is $347 million over the next 25 years. Recovery costs for fall Chinook over the next 25 years are projected to be $5.2 million.

"This recovery plan contains an extensive list of actions to move the [evolutionarily significant unit] and [distinct population segment] towards viable status; however, the actions will not get us to recovery," the plan says. "There will still be gaps, and our recovery efforts will need to be broadened and adapted as we progress towards the time when the species are self-sustaining in the wild and can be delisted under the ESA."

While total recovery of salmon and steelhead in the basin may be decades away, distinct populations of each species are trending toward viability.

Fall Chinook are in relatively good shape and not far from viability, Rosemary Furfey, salmon recovery coordinator at NOAA Fisheries, told NW Fishletter.

The fish have rebounded from a low of 78 returning fish in 1990 to near 50,000 in recent years, a total that includes hatchery and wild fish. The new plan estimates the species is within decades of full recovery.

While numbers of returning Snake River spring/summer Chinook and steelhead have risen in recent years, many populations remain at high risk, the plans says.

Steelhead depend more on small tributaries to spawn and raise their young, which makes them more vulnerable to habitat degradation and climate change.

But several populations of steelhead and Chinook are either trending toward viability or have reached their target populations, Furfey said.

Currently, naturally spawned populations of Snake River spring/summer Chinook salmon and steelhead inhabit streams in the Grande Ronde River and Imnaha River region in northeast Oregon, and the Tucannon River and lower Snake River in southeast Washington. Steelhead are doing well in the Salmon River and parts of the Clearwater River Basin in Idaho, according to the plan.

NOAA Fisheries' Snake River basin plan is just one mechanism that will guide the recovery of the species. In March 2017, U.S. District Judge Michael Simon ordered federal agencies to spill more water at Columbia and Snake river dams to protect juvenile salmon and steelhead, in the ongoing litigation over the 2014 Federal Columbia River Power System BiOp that governs salmon recovery.

In May, Simon also directed federal agencies to begin working on an EIS to evaluate alternatives for operating federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers, which will include the possibility of breaching one or more dams on the lower Snake River. That EIS is expected to be ready in 2021.

The recovery plans summarize earlier scientific analyses of dam breaching and increased spill, but defers any recommendations on breaching to the EIS process.

"Many people are focused on dam breaching, but the recovery plans look beyond that for recovery opportunities at all stages of the salmon and steelhead life cycle," Michael Tehan, assistant regional administrator, NOAA Fisheries' Interior Columbia Basin Office, said in a release. "Right now we know the ocean is not favorable for salmon, but that's largely beyond our control. We're focused on improving survival at those stages where we know we can make a difference." -Steve Ernst

[2] Judge OKs Spill Plan for Lower Columbia and Snake River Dams

The eight federal dams on the lower Columbia and Snake rivers will spill as much water as allowed under state water-quality rules, which could trigger a rate increase from the BPA.

U.S. District Judge Michael Simon approved the spill plan on Jan. 8, and barring an order from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the new spill regime will begin on April 3 on the lower Snake, and April 10 on the lower Columbia. The plans remain in place until June 15 on the lower Columbia and June 20 on the lower Snake.

Spilling more water could trigger BPA's recently enacted spill surcharge, which kicks in when lost revenues from spilling water reach $5 million.

Kieran Connolly, BPA VP of generation and asset management, said in testimony in Bonneville's 2017 rate case that lost revenue was estimated to total $80 million over fiscal years 2018 and 2019, corresponding to 815 MW worth of lost sales during the April-June period of each year.

Connolly said in testimony that the extra spill would have two primary effects. First, it would reduce sales of Bonneville surplus energy on the wholesale market, which would require additional revenues from statutory preference customers to cover costs.

In addition the reduced generation could also lead to occasions in which low streamflows and high power demand would require Bonneville to purchase additional power from the open market, "at potentially high prices," to fulfill its preference-customer obligations, Connolly said.

"It is very frustrating; it's not known whether it may harm or help fish, but it is certain that it will raise electricity costs and hamper the ability to operate the system," Scott Corwin, executive director of the Public Power Council, said in a statement emailed to NW Fishletter.

Simon's Jan. 8 order also denied a second motion by Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association for an evidentiary hearing on spill and fish transportation. CSRIA asked the court for the hearing, which Simon denied because he considered it a motion for reconsideration of his April 2017 spill order.

Under the new spill regime, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers will allow spill up to the total dissolved gas (TDG) level restriction, along with earlier PIT-tag monitoring of juvenile salmon.

For Washington dams, the TDG must not exceed an average of 115 percent as measured in the forebays of the next downstream dams and must not exceed an average of 120 percent as measured in the tailraces of each dam.

The Oregon TDG criteria says spill must be reduced when the average TDG concentration of the 12 highest hourly measurements per calendar day exceeds 120 percent of saturation in monitoring stations at the tailraces of McNary, John Day, The Dalles and Bonneville dams. Spill must be reduced when instantaneous TDG levels exceed 125 percent of saturation for any two hours during the 12 highest hourly measurements per calendar day at monitoring stations in the tailraces of those four dams.

Ted Case, executive director of the Oregon Rural Electric Cooperative Association, said spilling more water will increase carbon emissions in the state, and is contrary to Oregon's greenhouse gas emissions-reduction goals.

"On one hand, the State of Oregon is pushing an ambitious cap-and-trade bill to reduce carbon while on the other insisting on a 'spill program' in the Columbia River System that will generate 840,000 tons of carbon by reducing hydropower production. We need a consistent policy," said Case in an email.

The plan was jointly submitted to Simon in October, after months of negotiations between federal defendants and plaintiff environmental groups and the State of Oregon.

In January, plaintiff conservation groups and Oregon filed motions for additional spill and to stop capital spending unrelated 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 in spring 2017, but Simon ruled at the time more planning was needed to avoid unintended outcomes.

"There is no real scientific dispute that voluntary spill to the level required by the court will avoid harm to juvenile salmon," Todd True, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a prepared statement. "In addition, this spill order has been carefully crafted to avoid any unintended negative consequences to navigation and other resources. In fact, it is very likely that spill at higher levels would afford additional salmon survival improvements."

Federal defendants argued that the decision to increase spill was problematic because changes in flows can create eddies or other issues that might obstruct both juvenile and adult migration and negatively affect navigation through locks.

Terry Flores, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, said her group was "extremely disappointed that BPA's customers, who are expected to foot the bill for added spill costs, were not included or consulted in the discussions between the federal agencies and the plaintiffs on spill."

"We don't support the outcome because it's clear from the agencies own modeling that there is no added survival benefits to listed salmon from more spill but significant costs," she told NW Fishletter in an email. "This is a massive misuse of funds at a time when BPA is struggling to stay competitive and will do nothing to help salmon."

In June, the federal agencies appealed Simon's ruling to the 9th Circuit. The court has promised to expedite review of the case. -Steve Ernst

[3] Capacity Metric Can Quantify Habitat Benefits, Idaho Experts Say

Editor's note: This story marks the last NW Fishletter piece from Laura Berg, who retired in December. We appreciate her many contributions as our fish reporter, and wish her all the best in retirement. Her successor, K.C. Mehaffey, started with us on Feb. 5.

Idaho scientists say they have a promising new method for prioritizing habitat-restoration actions and evaluating their contribution to salmon and steelhead recovery.

The new approach, described at a Northwest Power and Conservation Council meeting in November, could be a breakthrough for salmon managers and project funders who have been frustrated by the difficulty of demonstrating, quantitatively, whether habitat actions are achieving regional goals, including delisting goals.

In fact, U.S. District Judge Michael Simon, in rejecting the 2008-2014 BiOp on the Federal Columbia River Power System, said the BiOp and its reasonable and prudent alternatives (RPAs) relied too heavily on uncertain benefits from habitat-improvement projects.

The new approach--integrated rehabilitation assessment (IRA) being used in Idaho's Salmon River subbasin--was explained to Council members by Mike Edmondson, Idaho Offices of Species Conservation; Chris Beasley, Quantitative Consultants; Jude Trapani, Bureau of Reclamation; and Mark Davidson, The Nature Conservancy.

IRA uses a life-stage, habitat carrying-capacity metric that sequentially identifies and targets the most limiting life stages of salmonids. It employs a machine-learning technique called quantile random forest (QRF) to estimate the available capacity.

This approach and similar recent habitat initiatives in the region contrast with past approaches that isolated habitat limiting factors and tried to fix them without distinguishing the fish life stages affected.

To determine if a particular stream or reach has capacity to support salmonids at particular life stages, IRA uses data and analyses from two BPA-funded efforts-integrated status and effectiveness monitoring program (ISEMP) and Columbia habitat monitoring program (CHaMP).

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PIT-tag antennae being installed in Lemhi River, Idaho. Credit: Milstein/BPA

ISEMP and CHaMP use various sampling and identification techniques, including in-stream PIT-tag detection systems, to estimate adult and juvenile fish abundance and life stage-specific growth and survival.

These programs have come under extra scrutiny because of high costs and the difficulty of ascertaining their value to salmon recovery.

While the Council is requiring modifications to the two habitat-monitoring programs, their potential importance to habitat restoration in the region is highlighted by the Idaho work.

Modeling the data using QRF allows linking stream quantity and quality data with fish life-stage survival, which in turn permits estimating habitat capacity.

To determine how much habitat capacity is needed to improve salmon and steelhead abundance, IRA defines regional goals on the basis of habitat-capacity requirements for different life stages.

For instance, if a goal for a particular tributary is 2,000 adult fish, that number of adult fish requires 980 redds, or spawning areas, which requires 1.5 million parr (fish stage between fry and smolt) to emerge from the redds, which in turn requires 700,000 parr to survive to the pre-smolt life stage.

Because QRF can estimate how much a proposed rehabilitation action is likely to increase survival and habitat capacity, it can be used to prioritize prospective projects.

For example, although data might suggest that one rehabilitation project would increase a stream's capacity significantly more than another, if IRA indicates that spawning habitat for redds is not currently limiting capacity, it would place projects to improve spawning habitat at a low priority.

A completed restoration project also can be evaluated on how much it has increased survival at critical life stages and how much that contributes to achieving population goals.

Such calculations will help salmon managers and project funders estimate the amount of rehabilitation necessary to achieve life-stage recovery goals and identify the best opportunities for restoration actions.

In the future, the Idaho scientists predicted, the QRF approach will be able to compare existing and proposed modeling results to inform project-engineering design.

Using IRA methods, measuring progress toward goals can be completed faster and more cost-effectively than the standard monitoring and evaluation metric can be replicated in other interior Columbia River Basin watersheds, the scientists said.

They also said the new metric would use existing information with no or very limited new data necessary, with the possible exception of the Clearwater River watershed in the Snake River Basin.

This would lower the costs of monitoring and evaluation, one of the more expensive items in the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Program.

And, importantly, new approaches like IRA can help pick the projects most likely to increase salmon and steelhead survival in the basin, which is what the road to recovery is all about, they said. -Laura Berg

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