Columbia Basin Hatcheries Gear Up for 3 Million More Smolts
Editor's Note: This story has been changed to clarifly that the 800,000 spring Chinook smolts to be released at the Klickitat Hatchery come after reductions in hatchery production following years of producing 600,000 spring Chinook there.
Plans to release 3 million additional hatchery-raised smolts into the Columbia River Basin are raising questions about the impacts increased hatchery production could have on recovering wild stocks.
An estimated 3 million additional hatchery salmon smolts are set to be released into the Columbia River basin over the next year, through artificial production projects funded through the Bonneville Power Administration's fish and wildlife program.
The concerns came up at the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's Sept. 12 meeting.
Mark Fritsch, the Council's project implementation manager, updated the Council on 11 hatchery programs that have undergone a three-step review--a process required for all new fish and wildlife program hatchery projects or facilities--and four more potential projects that have not yet been reviewed.
In an interview with NW Fishletter, Fritsch said 3 million new hatchery fish may sound like a lot, but it's not such a large number compared with the roughly 139.5 million hatchery salmon and steelhead now released into the system each year.
At the peak of hatchery production, which occurred in 1981, some 237 million fish were produced in the basin's hatcheries, Fritsch said.
Hatcheries then started reducing production in the mid-1980s, and by the early 1990s, total releases had dropped to about 217 million salmon annually. By 1997, those releases leveled off to about 150 million fish.
For the last 10 years, the numbers have averaged about 140 million, although this fluctuates by a few million fish every year, Fritsch said.
The reduced numbers compared with 30 years ago isn't exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, Fritsch noted. Most hatcheries now release older fish--parrs or smolts--instead of fry. "They're focusing more on quality instead of quantity," he said.
That's just one of the many hatchery practices that have changed over the last 20 years. Brian Missildine, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife natural resources scientist, told NW Fishletter that hatchery fish released at an older age are more likely to quickly migrate to the ocean instead of staying in local rivers and streams and competing with wild fish.
Missildine is a member of the Hatchery Scientific Review Group, a team established by Congress 20 years ago to review hatchery programs in the Pacific Northwest. Its goal is to continue to provide fish for harvest while reducing risks to natural populations. After a comprehensive review of more than 200 artificial propagation programs in western Washington, the effort was replicated throughout the Columbia River basin. Another 351 hatchery programs were reviewed between 2005 and 2009, and provided with recommendations for reform.
Missildine provided an update on hatchery reform efforts earlier this year that found about 88 percent of Washington state's hatchery programs are now meeting the review group's recommendations.
He said some of the populations of wild stocks have sunk so low that increased hatchery production isn't helping.
"The stocks are so low, it's a challenge to get there," while at the same time leaving enough wild fish on the spawning grounds, he said.
Missildine said the concern that hatchery fish will intermix with wild fish and reduce the wild stock's fitness level has driven efforts to reform hatcheries. Hatchery programs are now following guidelines to minimize those risks, through either segregated or integrated hatchery programs, he said.
Segregated hatchery programs raise fish and attempt to keep them completely separate from wild fish. One of the main reforms has been the use of weirs across rivers that lead to spawning grounds, where biologists catch the adult fish as they return. Biologists then remove the hatchery fish at the weirs, and pass the wild fish over the weir to spawn. Fishing regulations are also aimed at catching only hatchery fish, which were previously marked through removal of the adipose fin.
Integrated hatchery programs use naturally-spawning fish to get their broodstock, Missildine said. They use broodstock from specific streams and avoid transferring any hatchery fish from one watershed to another. These programs pay close attention to the proportions of hatchery-origin spawners on the spawning grounds, and of natural-origin broodstock used to produce smolts.
Missildine said scientists are using genetics to test wild stocks and determine how well hatcheries are doing.
Michael Milstein, spokesman for NOAA Fisheries in Seattle, said his agency agrees that a lot of work has been done to reform hatcheries, and a lot of progress made in reducing their risks to the recovery of wild salmon and steelhead.
"We're working with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to provide the kind of advice and support that will help ensure that additional hatchery fish don't further jeopardize the wild stocks," he said.
Questions about the role of hatcheries arose more than once during the Sept. 12 Council meeting.
In the discussion leading up to approving a letter to the Columbia Basin Partnership Task Force on its draft recommendations on common goals for salmon and steelhead recovery, Washington Council member Guy Norman commented, "I think the question in my mind is, do we have an understanding of what's happened with hatcheries? How do hatcheries fit into the long-term goals?"
And during Fritsch's presentation, Council vice chair Jennifer Anders (Montana) wondered whether there's enough carrying capacity in the basin's rivers and streams to support the new hatchery releases. "At what point is there any analysis of the carrying capacity issue with respect to the increased production?" she asked, and later questioned whether there have been any basinwide reviews.
Fritsch replied that no one evaluates the carrying capacity of each river or stream to accommodate the new fish, but noted each project has undergone its own extensive review, and in some cases, habitat restoration work has been part of the overall artificial production project.
Tony Grover, the Council's fish and wildlife division director, added that an upcoming Independent Scientific Review Panel evaluation of all production facilities will also consider the habitat restoration work done in the same areas. "We'll have a combined review that looks at those together," he said.
The list of new production that can be expected during the next year includes programs for Pacific lamprey and sturgeon.
However, some of the salmon production plans won't immediately translate into new releases. For example, two of them--the Yakama Indian Nation's new Melvin R. Sampson facility and the Mid-Columbia coho reintroduction plan--will use coho from the lower basin and release them in focal areas in the Yakima and Wenatchee river basins. The former will raise up to 700,000 coho, and the latter calls for as many as 1.5 million smolts.
Projects to release new smolts include Crystal Springs, which will add 500,000 new summer Chinook, and eventually as many as 1 million if successful; Walla Walla River basin with 500,000 new spring Chinook; and the Hood River Production Program, with 100,000 additional spring Chinook. The Klickitat Hatchery will also be releasing 800,000 spring Chinook, but the program had produced 600,000 smolts for many years, and recently reduced its production to make room at its facility.
All of the BPA-funded hatchery facilities themselves also underwent a recent evaluation by a Council subcommittee, which developed a proposed asset management strategic plan that will be reviewed by the full Council in October.
The plan includes a comprehensive examination of the 14 Bonneville-funded hatcheries and all of their assets, as well as BPA lands and fish screens. A top priority in the 2014 fish and wildlife program, the plan was developed following a thorough evaluation of the assets acquired through the program, with the intent of protecting and ensuring long-term maintenance of those assets.
"We toured every single one of the hatcheries, took inventory of the condition, and I think we were pleased to find that, by and large, they're in pretty good shape," Idaho Council member Bill Booth told the fish and wildlife committee.
The subcommittee also created interactive maps with detailed information about all 14 artificial production programs, showing hatcheries and acclimation sites, as well as 1,041 fish screens and 240 land parcels that were acquired under the fish and wildlife program. -K.C. Mehaffey
 New 10-Year Pacific Salmon Treaty Awaits Approval
Reduced catch for Endangered Species Act (ESA)-listed Chinook salmon in the Pacific Northwest is being promoted as one of the most important changes in the proposed new 10-year Pacific Salmon Treaty, which was approved by an international commission and is now awaiting approval by the United States and Canada.
New limits on Chinook catches by fishermen in both countries is just one of many proposed changes to the existing treaty contained in the recommendation, said John Field, executive secretary for the Pacific Salmon Commission.
The new treaty would also cover management agreements on the sharing and conservation of Pacific pink, coho, sockeye and chum salmon.
The 16-member Commission, which includes four members and four alternatives from both the United States and Canada, announced the new agreement on Sept. 17 after two years of extensive negotiations. If adopted, this will be the third major revision to the treaty since it was originally signed in 1985, and would be in force from 2019 through 2028.
The updated treaty would set up a framework for cooperation on management of Pacific salmon to prevent overfishing, allow for conservation, and "ensure that both countries receive benefits equal to the production of salmon originating in their waters," according to the Commission's website. It covers a territory from Cape Falcon, Ore., to southeast Alaska. The current treaty expires on Dec. 31.
Field said each government conducted domestic consultations leading up to the final agreement, with its own processes for consultation with stakeholders. He said Canada will translate the document into French, and each government will look at the proposals, make sure they comport with national laws and use formal diplomatic channels to proceed toward ratification. Field said the recommendation is not being released to the public.
In addition to the Commission's news release, Oregon, Washington and Alaska all put out statements about the new treaty, but none has released the document. However, they say Canada has agreed to reduce its catches of ESA-listed Chinook by up to 12.5 percent when poor Chinook returns are expected, and that Alaska will reduce its catch by up to 7.5 percent.
Alaska's news release didn't specifically mention Chinook, but said that every participating jurisdiction accepted a reduction in the number of fish that can be harvested, and that Oregon and Washington will see reductions ranging from 5 to 15 percent.
"I regret the reduction of even one salmon available to Alaskans for harvest," Alaska Gov. Bill Walker said in the release. "However, this treaty agreement protects the health and sustainability of our salmon stocks and guarantees Alaska's ability to directly manage our fisheries without federal interference."
By contrast, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said in a separate release, "This step comes at a crucial time as we continue to see declines in Chinook salmon populations around Puget Sound. As we work with our international partners to send more fish into our waters, it becomes even more crucial that state leaders do what's necessary to protect and restore habitat and address the dire needs of these fish."
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown added, in that state's release, "I praise the efforts of the joint U.S.-Canada Pacific Salmon Commission for approving strong recommendations to the Pacific Salmon Treaty. Successful updates to the Treaty through 2028 will help ensure long term sustainable and healthy salmon populations that are vital to the people of the Pacific Northwest, and to the entire ecosystem."
Alaska also noted that the new treaty language would increase harvests proportionately when abundance increases, and praised its new accountability measures.
The new limits on Chinook catch will include stocks from Puget Sound and the Columbia River; and as a result of the changes, abundances of several Chinook stocks returning to Oregon waters are expected to increase, Oregon said. "The agreement also includes provisions in other west coast fisheries to ensure that harvests remain strongly tied to stock conservation objectives," the news release said.
Commission Executive Secretary Field said a key chapter in the treaty covering the Fraser River is now undergoing its own separate negotiations, and that under the Commission's recommendation, it would remain in effect until those negotiations are completed and the update is adopted by the U.S. and Canada.
Field said representatives on the Commission include Canada's First Nations, Pacific Northwest Tribes, fishermen, states and other interests.
"It was gratifying to know throughout the negotiations that conservation of coast-wide salmon stocks was the highest priority of every commissioner," Commission Chair Bob Turner, who represents NOAA Fisheries, said in a release.
Vice Chair Rebecca Reid, Canada's regional director general of fisheries and oceans for the Pacific region, added, "I'm pleased the Commission was able to bring forward this recommendation, and that the parties were able to reach an agreement that we feel will support the conservation and long-term sustainability of this important resource." -K.C. Mehaffey
 Advice to Orca Taskforce Includes Raising Dissolved Gas Levels
With more than 50 potential recommendations in hand, the Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force will try to focus in on actions that can be accomplished in the first year, and that will have the biggest impact on helping to save a dwindling population of orcas.
The Sept. 24 report is the first official release of the recommendations developed by three working groups that were asked to come up with both short-term and long-term solutions for the taskforce to consider.
The working groups could not agree on whether to support removing Snake River dams as part of the orca recovery effort, but did support another controversial measure--asking the Washington State Department of Ecology to immediately adjust water quality standards to allow total dissolved gas (TDG) to reach 125 percent at the tailraces of dams "to create flexibility to adjust spill regimes to benefit Chinook salmon and other salmonids."
The recommendation asks the agency to work with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to align its standards as well. The recommendation does not directly support increasing spill, but would allow for increasing spill levels compared with the 2018 spill regime that pushed water to the water quality limits allowed under Washington laws.
In a separate process, Bonneville Power Administration is negotiating with state, federal and tribal officials on a possible alternative spill regime that would allow for the higher spill, coupled with lower spill levels that would enable more power generation during periods of each day when power is most valuable, said BPA spokesman David Wilson. "A key goal in all of this is that the operations being contemplated would not cost ratepayers, on average, more than the 2018 court-ordered spill operation," he told NW Fishletter.
By increasing spill levels for 16 hours a day, and decreasing them for up to 8 hours a day, Bonneville would plan to hold its costs in the Fish and Wildlife Program at or below the rate of inflation, as called for in the agency's strategic plan, Wilson explained.
Water-quality standards in Washington and Oregon now limit TDG levels to between 110 and 120 percent in order to protect both adult and juvenile fish, which can experience gas bubble trauma with higher levels of dissolved gas--especially nitrogen--in the water. Some scientists believe TDG levels are still safe at 125 percent, and the Fish Passage Center's 2017 Cumulative Survival Study predicts that increasing spill to 125 percent TDG could significantly increase smolt-to-adult returns in the Columbia River basin.
The possible regulatory change allowing for higher TDG levels is just one of dozens of potential recommendations to be considered and prioritized by the task force. Others include a wide variety of actions, such as closing fishing in areas when and where orcas are present, creating a permitting system for whale watchers, and establishing a "go slow" requirement for boats operating within one-half nautical mile of the whales.
Les Purce, co-chair of the task force, said he believes these and other potential recommendations are the kind of bold actions envisioned when Washington Gov. Jay Inslee created the task force this spring.
"There's no silver bullet," Purse told NW Fishletter. "I think what we've tried to do with this very diverse group of people is, everybody has to have a skin in this game. And everybody is going to have to give something up if we're really going to be able to help the orcas, and increase the return of Chinook in these areas."
Southern Residents were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2005, and now number 74 individuals in three pods. Inslee created the task force in March to try to revive the population, now at its lowest level since the 1970s. No new whales have been born to the three pods that make up the group in three years. This summer, a baby whale died within hours of its birth, and a 3-year-old whale that appeared emaciated is now missing and believed to be dead.
However, a Sept. 25 NOAA Fisheries release said recent aerial photographs indicate that at least three of the orcas are pregnant.
NOAA Fisheries identified three main causes for their decline: a lack of prey, noise and disturbance from vessel traffic, and contaminants in Puget Sound, where the whales spend much of their time. Those are the three key issues that the Prey, Vessels and Contaminants working groups have worked to address in dozens of recommendations that can now be amended, dropped, or added to by the task force, which will also consider public comments before issuing a final report for the governor on Nov. 16.
According to the report, the goal is to "witness evidence of consistently well-nourished whales and the survival of several thriving young orcas" by 2022; and increase the population from 74 to 84 whales in the next decade. "The extinction of these orcas would be an unacceptable loss," it says.
Purce said it's important to realize that the first-year recommendations will be those that can have the timeliest impact on orcas in those three areas. The group will attempt to reach consensus on which recommendations to make, but can call for a vote and agree with a two-thirds majority.
The working group that looked into increasing prey abundance for orcas considered all four Hs--habitat, hatcheries, hydroelectricity and harvest--along with salmon predation by sea lions and seals, birds and other fish, and the low abundance of forage fish for both salmon and their predators.
In the hydro category, the working group agreed to three other potential recommendations.
The first recommendation calls for the governor and Legislature to provide funding in 2019 to coordinate with tribes and other partners to assess and prioritize locations for re-establishing salmon runs above dams.
Specifically, it calls for providing policy support for both the Chinook reintroduction above Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams in a trap-and-haul effort underway by Upper Columbia tribes, and a long-term approach in the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's Fish and Wildlife Program, with priority given to projects that produce downstream Chinook.
The second recommendation would compile and prioritize a list of barriers "where removal would yield high benefit to Chinook," with the legislature ensuring funding to remove the high priority barriers in its 2020 budget.
And the third recommendation provides $200,000 a year for the next three years to help a proposed study evaluating predatory fish reductions through McNary Dam reservoir elevation management.
The prey working group also identified numerous other potential recommendations, including increasing hatchery production of Chinook salmon, or developing hatchery pilot projects to study how to increase the Chinooks' marine survival, adjust their return timing to align with orcas' needs, and increasing the size and age of return, all while reducing competition with wild fish.
Its recommendations for salmon predation in the Columbia River basin by seals and sea lions included either supporting an amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act to allow for more lethal control, which is currently under consideration in Congress; supporting an application to authorize additional lethal removal; or asking NOAA Fisheries to study salmon survival in the Columbia River estuary to help guide management actions.
Another potential recommendation would seek to reclassify nonnative predatory fish--including walleye, bass and catfish--from game fish to an invasive species to encourage additional fishing.
The public can comment on the taskforce findings at governor.wa.gov/orcareport, with a deadline of midnight on Oct. 7 in order to be considered by the task force. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Orca Taskforce Listens to Pros, Cons on Dam Removal
If Washington Gov. Jay Inslee's orca taskforce was looking for a simple answer to the question of whether removing four lower Snake River dams would effectively provide more prey for southern resident killer whales, they didn't get it on Sept. 27, after a two-hour webinar on the topic.
However, it did hear several different opinions from nine panelists on this and other questions related to orcas, Chinook salmon, and Snake River dams.
Before submitting its Nov. 16 report to Gov. Jay Inslee, the taskforce will have to decide whether to pick one of two potential recommendations offered in a Sept. 24 report from the Prey Working Group, or whether to leave out the issue of tearing out the Snake River dams, or come up with a different recommendation altogether.
The working group gave two choices--both ranking equally with three votes apiece--but several other members of that group did not feel equipped to decide and wanted the taskforce to make its own decision after the webinar.
The options with three votes each would either urge the governor to recommend supporting the process for an environmental impact statement now underway by federal agencies to examine removing the dams as part of its biological opinion on the Federal Columbia River Power System, or urge him to hire a neutral third party to study the issue. This latter option would include initiating a forum for local, state, tribal, federal and other stakeholders to look at the costs, benefits, risks and other issues related to removing the dams.
The webinar went immediately to the heart of the issue--the potential increases in Snake River Chinook availability if the dams are removed. And the answers from two scientists varied greatly.
The southern resident killer whales rely on a wide variety of populations of Chinook salmon, and only two of those come from the Snake River--fall, and spring/summer Chinook, Rich Zabel, director of the Fish Ecology Division at NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center, told the panel.
The Snake's fall Chinook have increased a lot over the last decade, and the harvest rate is up to 50 percent, he said, adding that they'll probably be the first to be delisted.
Spring/summer Chinook from the Snake have also increased, he noted. Somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of the Snake River Chinook have come from hatcheries over the past two decades, and it's unclear what would happen to hatcheries if the dams are removed. But, he added, because there are still few wild fish, there aren't a lot of gains to be made if the dams are removed.
He also noted that the J-Pod--the family of whales that lost both a baby whale and three-year old this summer in highly publicized events--spends most of its time in Puget Sound, and while the K- and L-Pods both migrate to the mouth of the Columbia, the J-Pod does not.
He said his agency is working on Snake River dam breach scenarios as part of its federal National Environmental Policy Act analysis, and expects to have results in about six months. "So we don't have abundance estimates now" to show what scientists think will happen if the dams are removed.
Michele DeHart, manager of the Fish Passage Center, offered some numbers from its 2017 Comparative Survival Study, which looked at the potential of Snake River dam removal using 20 years of smolt-to-adult return data.
DeHart said the modeling study looked at dam removal because a 2016 federal court order required the federal agencies to consider it. She said of all the scenarios, which included different levels of spill, the study concluded that the highest adult returns would come if the four lower Snake River dams were removed, and the four lower Columbia River dams spilled to 125 percent of total dissolved gas.
Under that scenario, she said, smolt-to-adult returns to the mouth of the Columbia River would increase to two percent under poor ocean conditions, and to 11.3 percent when ocean conditions are good. By numbers, she said, the average increase in returns would be between 129,000 and 705,000 spring Chinook, she said.
DeHart added that an Independent Scientific Advisory Board review of the study found that the analysis was incomplete, because it did not include the additional fish that would return with less predation, and lower water temperatures.
Guy Norman, a member of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, showed the taskforce graphs of increasing numbers of Snake River Chinook returns, and noted that the years with plenty of Snake River returns didn't track with the same trends for southern resident killer whale numbers.
Norman said late winter and early spring, however, is a time when Snake and Columbia River Chinook are present around the mouth of the river, and that could be an important time for the orcas. He said one of the main factors to consider will be not only the potential increase in wild Chinook, but also the potential decrease in hatchery Chinook, and the impact that could have on the whales.
Other panelists presented vastly differing views.
Proponents of dam removal told the taskforce that the Snake River offers some of the best potential habitat to increase Chinook numbers. "Of all the Columbia River tributaries, the Snake has the most extensive remaining habitat in the Columbia River Basin," said Michael Garrity, water policy manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Sam Mace, Inland Northwest director of Save Our Wild Salmon, added that much of that habitat is in higher elevations and roadless areas, and doesn't need to be restored. Reservoirs behind the dams in the lower Snake River, which winds through the deserts of southeast Washington, sometimes cause water temperatures to climb to 80 degrees and higher--a lethal temperature for fish. Dams, and the pools below, also provide make it easier for predators to succeed, she noted.
Terry Flores, executive director of RiverPartners, however, pointed out that the Snake River is home to only four of the 13 Endangered Species Act-listed salmon and steelhead species, and some of those are close to delisting levels. The bigger issue, she said, is that if the dams come out, so do the hatcheries, which now produce up to 80 percent of the Chinook--the southern resident orca's favorite prey.
More importantly, Flores said, survival rates in the Snake River are similar to what they are in undammed rivers, like the Fraser River in British Columbia. "A hundred percent survival does not exist. Mother Nature is a harsh mistress. She said in the bigger picture, ocean conditions are what really count when it comes to the size of salmon runs.
Jim Waddell, a retired U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contended that the Corps can put a project into non-operational status, and--with a 2002 environmental impact statement that has the Snake Dam removal as one of its alternatives--could now choose that alternative because its current option isn't working to recover fish. He also said that a later analysis of the 2002 cost estimate of $900 million to remove the dams was off, and should have been about $400 million, and that the Bonneville Power Administration would be primarily responsible for the cost of removing them.
But Dave Ponganis, the Corps' director of programs for the Northwest Division, said that 2002 cost estimate for removal would put removal at over $2.5 billion, in today's dollars. The money would have to come from federal funds and provided by Congress, he said.
And, he added, "I am fully confident that only Congress can give the authority to remove or breach the lower Snake River dams."
The taskforce must now sort through the panelists' remarks to come to their own conclusions on whether to include any recommendations on removing the lower Snake River dams as part of their larger goal of saving this population of endangered whales. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Experts Examine Snake River Temperatures to Help Fish
With the dog days of summer behind us, water temperatures throughout the Columbia River Basin are beginning to drop, bringing relief to migrating salmon and steelhead that rely on cool water for their survival.
That relief also means members of the Columbia Basin Technical Management Team (TMT)--an interagency group of dam operations and fish experts that discusses precise operating plans for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dams--can take a breather.
After meeting at least weekly since January, the team cancelled its Sept. 5 meeting and will begin meeting every other week through much of the fall. One of their most complicated tasks--determining when and how much cooler water to release from the Clearwater River to best help migrating fish--is winding down for the year.
The Clearwater River--which can be 20 degrees cooler than Snake River water, or more--is held back by Dworshak Dam, a Corps facility that also produces power and helps prevent flooding.
Ann Setter, the Corps' lead biologist for the operations division in the Walla Walla District, said her agency began testing the idea of releasing cooler water from Dworshak back in 1991, when sockeye were petitioned for an Endangered Species Act listing. By 1995 it became standard practice. At the same time, scientists were also studying the impact of the dam on fall Chinook, and whether their outmigration was delayed by holding back the cold water.
The goal is to lower Snake River temperatures to 68 degrees or cooler, which minimizes warm water disease--or columnaris--in all fish species. "It's a bacteria that flourishes when temperatures get to the 68- to 70-degree and above range," Setter said.
She said releasing the cooler water from Dworshak has a lot of impact on temperatures at the Lower Granite Dam, and some influence on temperatures at Little Goose Dam. After that, the impact is steadily reduced as the Snake River makes its way to Ice Harbor Dam and then the Columbia River.
The decisions on how much to release and how much to hold back are based on modeling. "It's a challenge, and that's why they model daily," Setter said, adding, "It's a very busy time for them in hydrology upstairs to meet, what for us is a legal requirement."
But which fish should benefit? Should they save more cool water for later runs, or release more now to help those currently migrating? Should they focus on returning adults, or juveniles heading to the ocean?
"It's an interesting balancing act we do," Russ Kiefer, TMT member who represents the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, told NW Fishletter. "All the runs, including lamprey, are important and fit into our deliberations," he said.
Their decisions are based partly on which fish are currently migrating, and whether this year's run is small, and may need the extra boost. In mid- to late summer, many of their discussions involve Snake River sockeye, which were making a comeback until the disastrously low flows and warm water temperatures in 2015 set back progress.
Idaho's sockeye have some of the toughest migrating conditions of all Pacific Northwest salmon, with a journey of more than 900 miles that includes crossing eight major dams during the warmest months. "It's not that we value them more than other fish. But they are affected more, and they are endangered," Kiefer explained.
The TMT's decisions on how much water to release from Dworshak are also based on unknowns, such as forecasts for air temperatures that influence how warm the water will get, and how much water Idaho Power is releasing through Hell's Canyon Complex.
Ralph Myers, Idaho Power's water quality program supervisor, said in late July and August, the water coming into the Hell's Canyon Complex is usually warmer than what's being released, since the sun and heat warm the shallower river more than it does the deep reservoirs. Typically, water flowing into the complex ranges from 78.8 to 82.4 degrees, while the water flowing out is between 71.6 and 73.4 degrees. Without the complex, he said, the Snake River would be considerably warmer during those months.
Myers also noted that prior to Aug. 7, Idaho Power is providing 237,000 acre feet of water to augment flows for salmon runs in the lower Columbia River. After that, the water coming through the complex is due to demand for power, which goes up in the heat as people use air conditioning, and irrigators turn on pumps.
The variables influencing water temperature at Lower Granite Dam are many, and with climate change, the TMT's job could become even more challenging.
A recent study led by Daniel Isaak examining changing river temperatures concludes that while most Northwest rivers will continue to provide suitable salmon habitat for the foreseeable future, "it also appears inevitable that some river reaches will gradually become too warm to provide traditional habitats."
Isaak, a fisheries research scientist at the Rocky Mountain Research Center, told NW Fishletter that water temperatures in the largest rivers in the Northwest--like the Columbia and Snake rivers--appear to be getting warmer.
"The story is, pretty much, over the last 20 to 40 years, you can see a climate warming signal during the summer and fall months," he said. That includes the lower Snake River, he said. But, like other rivers, that trend has actually cooled in some locations--often just below highhead dams--where, like Dworshak, water is being used to cool the river water downstream.
"Many of them are having to release larger and larger amounts of cold water to try and mitigate the effects," Isaak said, adding, "Flows have also been getting lower in the summer, on average. It comes down to the local capacity managers have to change the knobs and dials on the system they're managing. Dworshak has people managing temperature by using models, and they're doing the best they can to keep below the temperature threshold."
High temperatures in the lower Snake River are nothing new, according to Joseph Saxon, a Corps spokesman, pointing to temperature data from the 1950s, prior to construction of dams on the Snake River. The Corps' data shows that temperatures exceeded 71 degrees every year from 1952 through 1957, including a high of 79 degrees on Sept. 19, 1956.
Water temperatures in both the Snake and Columbia rivers are now under scrutiny, as the Environmental Protection Agency works to develop a plan to improve warm water, which "sometimes approach the upper limits of tolerance for cold water fishes, including salmon and steelhead," the agency says.
The EPA, which is in charge of enforcing the Clean Water Act, notes that stream temperature is affected by many factors, including the natural variation in weather and river flow, the reservoirs behind dams which slow the river, increased temperatures in tributaries, water management by dams, diversions for irrigation, discharges by cities and industries, and climate change.
One example of the impact from tributaries is the Yakima River, a major Columbia River tributary that saw 12 of the 30 hottest river temperatures ever recorded at Prosser, Wash., this summer, according to a release from the Washington State Department of Ecology. For 12 days in July, the average temperature was 80 degrees. "Over the last four years, the rise in river temperatures is notable. In fact, 20 of the 30 warmest river temperatures recorded since 1990 at Prosser were from the years 2015 to 2018," the agency's release said.
Ecology is working with the Benton Conservation District, the Yakama Nation and the U.S. Geological Survey to identify the cool water refuges in the lower river to help preserve them for fish.
Similarly, the Corps is taking advantage of the cooler water released from Dworshak to both cool the Snake River and to aid migrating fish by using that water to lower temperatures at Lower Granite Dam's fish ladders. Installed in 2016, the modifications draw cooler water from 20 meters below the water and pump the water to the surface, where it's sprayed over the ladder. The changes have resulted in lower water temperatures in the fish ladder, and less temperature differentials between the ladder and the river.
IDFG's Kiefer said to add one more complication, holding back cold water, has actually slowed the growth of fall Chinook that spawn naturally in the lower Clearwater River, causing them to migrate later than other fall Chinook in the system. In response to this finding, the TMT also tries to retain enough of the cold water behind Dworshak to cool off the Snake once those subyearlings start heading downstream, he said. "This thing is a tangled web," he said. "You've got to think about all these different pieces."
Kiefer added the TMT's decisions on how much Dworshak water to release rely on the Corps' modeling, and explanations from its TMT representative, Steve Hall.
At the TMT's latest meeting on Aug. 29, Hall had good news for the group. Water temperatures at all of the locations near Lower Granite Dam were below 70 degrees and dropping, and most were below 68 degrees.
In addition, Idaho Power was releasing less water from the Snake River, allowing the cooler water to have a larger impact. Weather forecasts called for clear skies, with highs around 80 degrees and lows in the 50s and 60s. September looks to stay relatively cool.
As for operations at Dworshak Dam, Hall said, "We're planning to reduce discharge, so we prolong the availability of cool water." -K.C. Mehaffey
 Funding Losses Threaten Caspian Tern Predation Control
A Bonneville Power Administration-supported project to lure Caspian terns away from the Columbia River estuary to reduce predation on salmon and steelhead smolts has been largely successful, but may stall if its funding continues to fall, the project's lead researcher told the Northwest Power and Conservation Council on Sept. 11.
The program's goal of leaving East Sand Island with a third as many nesting pairs may not be reached without funding to conduct the environmental analysis needed to continue to shrink their nesting area, said Peter Roby, a professor of wildlife ecology at Oregon State University and the project leader for the U.S. Geological Survey.
Since 1997, scientists have been working to reduce the number of nesting pairs on the island from about 9,400 to about 3,125 by reducing the area where terns will nest from six acres to one acre, he said. They came close to their goal in 2017, with about 3,500 nesting pairs, but those numbers jumped back to 5,000 pairs in 2018 when the terns unexpectedly nested at higher densities.
To maintain a lower population, he said, it's "going to take further reduction in their nesting habitat. But none is planned," he said. "It's going to remain at one acre."
The project--one of three in the Columbia River Basin to control birds that prey on salmon and steelhead--has had multiple funding sources, including support from Bonneville every year since it began, Roby said. For the last six years, BPA has awarded OSU $535,341 each year to implement the tern project on East Sand Island.
But, Roby said in an email to NW Fishletter, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is no longer providing any funds for the project, and "we have been notified by BPA that we can expect a major reduction in the grant amount for 2019, likely about half of what we were funded in recent years," the email said.
In his presentation, Roby said that Caspian terns and double-crested cormorants nesting on East Sand Island have consumed up to 25 million smolts each year--or about 15 percent of the Columbia River Basin smolts that survived into the estuary. He said the Columbia River estuary's East Sand Island once boasted the world's largest Caspian tern breeding colony. Their nesting period overlaps with much of the smolt out-migration period.
Over the last several years, scientists have reduced the area suitable for nesting on the island using a variety of methods, including erecting rope fencing and stakes with flagging. "The terns do not like to nest in and amongst this material," he said. Other parts of the island were also fenced and staked to ensure that the terns did not move to a new site nearby, he said.
At the same time, with Corps funding, they created and monitored 14 alternative nesting sites on eight different islands on their migration route outside the Columbia basin, and used social attractants--including decoys--to lure them to these new sites. The alternative islands are mostly in Oregon, and are as far away as the Tule Lake National Wildlife Reserve in Northern California.
Roby said seven of those sites on seven different islands are now being used by nesting Caspian terns, many of them originally from the colony on East Sand Island. But without continued work, Roby said the terns may not continue to use some of the sites, which have recently suffered from severe drought conditions.
"The Army Corps has decided that as of this past breeding season, they are out of the Caspian tern management business, completely," he said. And with about half of the funding from BPA, it's not yet clear what aspects of the Caspian tern management project will continue, he said.
But, he said, further reducing their nesting area is not likely, even though the actual work to reduce the area from one acre to two-thirds of an acre could be done relatively cheaply and quickly. But the work would also require a new environmental analysis, and none of the agencies appear willing to do that work, he said.
Roby said so far, monitoring has shown that their work to reduce Caspian tern nesting has had significant impacts on seven Endangered Species Act-listed stocks, including four Chinook populations, and three steelhead runs.
Before the project began, these terns ate an average of 22.2 percent of the Snake River steelhead smolts that made it to the Columbia River estuary, and today, they consume about 9.5 percent. Rates for upper Columbia steelhead dropped from 17.2 percent to 9 percent, and for middle Columbia steelhead from 14.9 percent to 9.3 percent.
Other stocks that saw significant reductions in Caspian tern predation rates include Snake River spring/summer Chinook, which dropped from 4.8 percent to 1.5 percent; upper Columbia spring Chinook which dropped from 3.9 percent to 1.6 percent; Snake River fall Chinook which dropped from 2.5 percent to 0.8 percent; and upper Willamette River spring Chinook, which dropped from 2.5 percent to 1 percent.
He said recent studies are beginning to show that controlling Caspian tern predation is having a direct impact on not only smolt survival, but also smolt-to-adult return rates. "As Caspian tern predation goes up, smolt-to-adult survival rates go down, and they go down significantly," he told the Council.
In addition to the Caspian tern colony on East Sand Island, other efforts to control predation by birds in the Columbia River Basin include the management of Caspian terns that nest on Goose and Crescent islands in the Columbia Plateau, and of double-crested cormorants that nest on East Sand Island.
Other native birds that prey on salmon and steelhead in the basin, including American white pelicans and a variety of gull species, are currently unmanaged. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Draft Fish Accords Draw Wide Range of Comments
Tribes, agencies, organizations and individuals offered some praise for fish restoration work done under the Columbia Basin Fish Accords, which expire at the end of September, but they also found plenty to criticize in the Bonneville Power Administration's proposal to extend the agreements for four more years.
Fourteen comments were posted on the agency's website following a 30-day comment period that ended Sept. 26.
In separate letters, the Spokane and Coeur d'Alene tribes worried that the extended Accords undermine the process for funding fish and wildlife mitigation under the Northwest Power Act, as well as the process underway to amend the fish and wildlife program.
Utilities and groups representing ratepayers focused on BPA's financial situation, telling the agency that the extensions don't do enough to control costs when there's still so much uncertainty in power markets, environmental requirements such as spill, and the potential for low water years.
Conservation groups chimed in with criticisms about the lack of success in recovering Endangered Species Act-listed fish, and a failure to put the Accords through a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis.
"It is almost inconceivable that someone would sign a long-term contract without clear price protection or off-ramps where prices are today and with this level of uncertainty over BPA future costs," wrote Roger Gray, CEO of Northwest Requirements Utilities.
He said he expected a more thorough review of the current Accords, and the use of a business case for projects that will be extended. Instead, he wrote, BPA issued a three-page fact sheet on Sept. 18 outlining the accomplishments of the existing accords, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Gray also noted that Bonneville is likely to move forward with the proposed extensions, but made several suggestions that include requiring business cases for all fish and wildlife programs, including the Accords, and a formal annual evaluation and review process to assess results against objectives.
Utilities and other ratepayer advocates had similar concerns.
The Public Power Council noted that since the Accords were first signed in 2008, BPA rates have increased 35 percent.
"The Accords, with their 2.5 percent annual escalations, were a significant part of those rate increases," the letter submitted by PCC's senior policy analyst Bo Downen states.
Downen argued that BPA's fish and wildlife decisions should be viewed through two lenses--expected biological benefits and impacts to BPA's overall cost-competitiveness. Whether Bonneville can "turn the corner on power costs" will impact whether PPC members will purchase BPA power in the future, the letter states. "Those future power purchases, from a competitive BPA, will provide the revenue stream that funds these mitigation efforts and all other BPA programs," it noted.
Steven Kern, Cowlitz County PUD general manger, said the $448 million extension only offers 3 percent savings over the original Accords.
"Given BPA's ever increasing rate trajectory and already burdensome increase estimated at 4 percent to power ratepayers for 2020 and 2021, the funding sources for this program could be threatened if changes are not seen soon," he wrote. "This should weigh heavily on BPA as the customer base could look to make changes post 2028."
Snohomish County PUD also urged Bonneville to include language where all parties agree to actively pursue efficiencies and cost-sharing opportunities, and where projects undergo regular evaluations, with funding discontinued for those that fail to demonstrate "measurable positive impacts on fish and wildlife."
SnoPUD also suggested that BPA could use alternative experts, in addition to the Fish Passage Center, as the entity named to provide analysis and evaluation of salmonoid survival, productivity and abundance to "ensure the selected expert remains accountable."
Terry Flores, executive director of RiverPartners, noted that BPA has limited time to analyze and respond to comments before the agreements expire at the end of September, and so she expected no significant changes to the drafts.
However, voicing similar concerns as other ratepayer advocates, Flores concluded, "RiverPartners asks BPA to adhere to the principles and commitments it has made to its customers: holding the Accord parties to their commitments, aggressively managing fish and wildlife budgets, finding savings and/or re-prioritizing program costs to offset any further cost increases, including the Accords, and continuing to ensure there is science review of Accord measures through the NPCC review process before projects receive funding."
The Nez Perce Tribe, which has not been part of the Accords, wrote that rather than spending too much, Bonneville is only doing what's minimally required in its trust responsibilities to tribes.
Shannon Wheeler, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, questioned whether the 2008 Accords were effective, and, therefore whether they should be extended.
"At heart, the Accords were aimed at the hope of discontinuing litigation over the operation of the hydrosystem," Wheeler wrote. "That goal was never reached."
While not questioning the "important work" done to help restore Endangered Species Act (ESA)-listed species, Wheeler's letter does question whether this mitigation work is more important than the $30 million in projects cut under BPA's fish and wildlife program.
The tribe also points to several statements in the proposed extensions as "mischaracterizations" and even "disingenuous," given the federal court decisions overturning the 2008 and 2014 biological opinions to mitigate for ESA-listed fish as unlawful.
The Spokane and Coeur d'Alene tribes both wrote of concerns that the Accords fail to use the process set out by the Northwest Power Act to fund mitigation projects through the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's Fish and Wildlife Program.
Both tribes say Bonneville is requiring support for the Action Agencies' opinions on some subjects in the fish and wildlife program amendment process. Their letters mention specific instances where the Accords undermine the fish and wildlife program, including a requirement that the Colville Tribes cannot use fish from Chief Joseph Hatchery in its efforts to reintroduce anadromous fish above Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams.
Meanwhile, conservation groups pushed for more effective strategies for achieving recovery of ESA-listed species.
Rob Masonis, vice president of Western conservation for Trout Unlimited, wrote that he supports the extension, and appreciates that they have achieved important outcomes.
"However, after a decade of major investment in restoration projects, Columbia Basin wild salmon and steelhead continue to be imperiled with limited progress toward recovery," he wrote.
Masonis urged Bonneville to ensure that future Fish Accords should clearly explain the value of actions, and how they fit with overall recovery.
Finally, Advocates for the West, a coalition of Idaho conservation groups, expressed concern over the lack of opportunity to comment prior to the release of the draft extensions, and said that BPA has failed to conduct a NEPA analysis on its proposal to extend the Accords.
The coalition asks both BPA and the state of Idaho not to sign an agreement that supports Bonneville's proposed block spill operation, which would vary spill levels to investigate impacts on fish, "since it will harm endangered fish that need additional help now."
They also urged not endorsing one that "constrains the State of Idaho to endorse and support federal positions rather than reach its own independent judgments." -K.C. Mehaffey
 Group Notifies PUDs of Intent to Sue Over Oil Spilling
The nonprofit organization Columbia Riverkeeper has sent notices to Chelan, Douglas and Grant county PUDs, warning of its intention to file a lawsuit against them for failing to get permits that would account for leaking oil at their mid-Columbia River dams.
In a Sept. 19 announcement, the group claims the utilities need to acquire a water pollution discharge permit under the Clean Water Act to ensure they are monitoring spills and providing a full public accounting of oil spills at any of the five hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River.
Columbia Riverkeeper also said the PUDs have violated the Clean Water Act by not having a water pollution discharge permit, failing to monitor spills and not providing a full accounting to the public after oil spills from equipment at the dams.
The action comes four years after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and BuRec agreed in a settlement with Riverkeeper to apply for pollution discharge permits for eight Columbia and Snake river dams operated by the federal agencies. The group sued in 2012, claiming the permits are required under the Clean Water Act.
As part of the settlement, the agencies agreed to look into using less harmful lubricants and have since taken steps to replace conventional oils with oils that are less harmful to fish and other aquatic life, the group says.
The new notices of intent to sue were sent to the three PUDs that operate Wells, Rocky Reach, Rock Island, Wanapum and Priest Rapids dams.
"Oil pollution from dams must stop," Riverkeeper executive director Brett VandenHeuvel said in a news release. "People rely on clean water and healthy salmon runs. It's past time for the public utility districts to protect clean water in the Columbia River."
According to the news release, Congress amended the Clean Water Act in 2016 by adding Section 123, which requires the EPA to take action related to restoring water quality in the Columbia Basin. In August, the federal Government Accountability Office released a report on the implementation of that section.
The report noted that while federal, state, tribal and other entities implemented efforts to improve water quality in the basin from 2010 through 2016, EPA has not yet taken steps to establish the Columbia River Basin Restoration Program as outlined in the new section due to a lack of dedicated funding.
The report added that the agency has not yet requested funding, nor identified needed resources. -K.C. Mehaffey
 PUD Proposes to Fund Conservation Instead of Fish Passage
The Pend Oreille County PUD Commissioners announced a proposal to amend its Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license for Box Canyon Dam on Sept. 25, and, according to a notice in the Newport Miner, intends to take action on the plan on Oct. 2.
In a proposed settlement agreement with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, the PUD would no longer be required under its FERC license to construct downstream fish passage at Box Canyon Dam, or downstream and upstream passage at Calispell Creek Pumping Plant. Instead, the PUD would fund new watershed and conservation programs.
A fact sheet on the proposal shows that the District would pay a total of $72 million over the next 25 years for four different actions, and save an estimated $60 million from now until its FEC license expires in 2055.
The District renewed its license for 50 years in 2005. It was amended in 2009 under a settlement agreement between the PUD and the agencies, and contains conditions that require the PUD to build upstream and downstream fish passage facilities at Box Canyon Dam and the Calispell Creek Pumping Plant. The license includes water quality certification from the Washington Department of Ecology and Environmental Protection Agency.
Under the settlement, the Kalispel Tribe would establish a 25-year watershed program for $36 million, and a 20-year conservation program for $20 million, which will be monitored by the district and others. The agreement would also attempt to resolve litigation over water quality problems in the Pend Oreille River and Calispell Creek, the PUD's fact sheet says.
According to the PUD, the proposal would lock in costs for the remainder of the FERC license term, providing long-term certainty for the District in setting rates. This, according to its fact sheet, could positively impact its creditworthiness and help the PUD market surplus hydroelectric resources.
 Negotiators Visit Portland for Town Hall on Columbia River Treaty
Benefits provided by hydropower took at back seat to concerns about flood control, ecosystem functions and tribal rights during an hour-long comment period on the Columbia River Treaty modernization in front of the U.S. Department of State's chief negotiator Jill Smail and other federal officials on Sept. 6.
The town hall meeting at a Bonneville Power Administration hearing room in Portland featured opening remarks by Smail and an introduction to four members of her negotiating team, followed by questions and comments from the audience.
Smail held the first town hall meeting in Spokane, Wash., in April and reiterated the negotiating team's commitment to follow the lead of local stakeholders and sovereigns five years ago, which resulted in the Regional Recommendations.
Smail recognized the treaty's success in managing floods, and providing hydropower, benefiting millions of people in the U.S. and Canada. She also mentioned the additional benefits from the treaty to irrigation, municipal water use, industrial use, navigation, recreation and flow augmentation from treaty-related agreements.
Giving a nod to the 70th anniversary of the nearby Vanport flood in 1948, where some 18,000 people lost their homes and several people died, Smail also noted that current provisions to pay Canada to store water that prevents flooding expire in 2024.
"After 2024, the Treaty's flood risk management provisions change to a less defined approach in terms of how we work together and compensate Canada for its role in managing water that flows across the border," she said. "By modernizing the Columbia River Treaty regime, we seek continued, careful management of flood risk. We also want to ensure a reliable and economical power supply and improve ecosystem benefits."
Some people commenting did call attention to the treaty's hydroelectric system.
Speaking for about 100 publicly-owned utilities, Scott Corwin, executive director of the Public Power Council, told the U.S. negotiating team that the treaty's assumptions regarding its power provisions are outdated. "We rely on this incredible, clean hydropower system, and it's a lynchpin to the region," he said.
He said he supports the Regional Recommendation and its three main goals for power, flood control and ecosystem functions, and urged negotiators to include a balanced approach that will provide a net benefit to ratepayers in the region.
"When it comes to electric power, Oregonians get over 40 percent from the Columbia River system," commented Bill Bradbury, who represented Oregon on the sovereign review team, and spoke on behalf of Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's natural resource office.
Bradbury spoke of the many critical assets that are protected from flooding through the treaty, including Portland International Airport; several ports that import and export numerous products including the largest wheat-exporting facilities in the nation; and transportation systems including rail systems and highways needed for commercial freight.
He asked the team to continue to coordinate with Canada for reservoir storage, to enhance the system's flexibility and improve ecosystem functions, and to ensure that the citizens of Oregon continue to have access to clean, reliable and affordable power.
Several people taking the microphone raised concerns about the potential for a new treaty to lose the assured water storage in the current treaty, and spoke against a "called upon" system, in which the U.S. would ask Canada to increase its storage under high-risk situations when U.S. reservoirs are full. It's the flood control mechanism that the treaty will revert to after 2024, if a new treaty is not in place.
"Please remember the tragic losses of Vanport," said Maryhelen Kincaid, a resident and board member of one of four Multnomah County Drainage Districts. "Consider the impact to citizens working behind our levies. Don't let your decision contribute to history repeating itself when it doesn't have to."
Giving the Columbia River ecosystem an equal weight at the negotiating table was a major theme among environmental groups who sent representatives. Miles Johnson, an attorney with Columbia Riverkeeper, said the treaty has provided enormous benefits in terms of power, transportation, and flood risk management, but those benefits have come at the expense of the environment.
"The Columbia River has been the lifeblood, and continues to be the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest," he said, adding that the region essentially sacrificed the greatest salmon-producing river in the world in order to control floods and produce power. He asked the team to put the ecosystem on the same footing as the treaty's other two main objectives--flood control and hydropower production.
Several people also mentioned their support for tribal representation during negotiations. Stan Thayne, a professor of anthropology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., told the team that he believes providing indigenous tribes with representation on the negotiating team is both a legal and moral obligation. He said groups that represent multiple Columbia River Basin tribes, such as the Upper Columbia United Tribes and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, could come up with a couple of representatives. "I know there has been consultation, but it isn't the same as direct representation," he said.
Smail responded to several speakers, but noted she could not provide details about what's been discussed in the two negotiating sessions with Canada so far, as she does not want to compromise those discussions. She said the sessions have been productive, and announced that a third round of negotiations will take place in Portland, Ore., on Oct. 17 and 18.
She said continuing comments and suggestions are welcome, and can be sent to ColumbiaRiverTreaty@state.gov. Another town hall meeting is being organized for early 2019. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Economic Benefits of Hydropower Praised at U.S. House Hearing
Two weekend gatherings--one pushing for removal of the lower Snake River dams and the other celebrating them--culminated on Sept. 10 with a Congressional hearing in Pasco, Wash., that focused on the economic benefits of the Federal Columbia River Power System.
After hundreds of people gathered over the weekend for either the Free the River Flotilla in Clarkston, Wash., or for RiverFest 2018 in Kennewick, Wash., the two-hour hearing--titled, "The Federal Columbia River Power System: The Economic Lifeblood & Way of Life for the Pacific Northwest"--highlighted the many benefits of the hydropower system, its importance in history, and this year's Congressional attempts to help address some of its problems, including constant litigation over biological opinions developed to mitigate for losses of endangered salmon and steelhead at its dams.
Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., who requested the field hearing in his home district, captured the spirit of the hearing--and the opposing celebrations that preceded it--with quotes that go to the heart of the issue, written by a UCLA scientist that Terry Flores, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, had previously entered into the committee hearing record.
Writing that, while there is no doubt that the Snake River dams have caused salmon declines, after spending billions of dollars to improve them, "it is not certain that dams now cause higher mortality than would arise in a free-flowing river," Peter Kareiva, director of UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability explained in his 2017 book, Effective Conservation Science: Data Not Dogma.
"The problem is that a complex species and river management issue had been reduced to a simple symbolic battle--a battle involving a choice between evil dams and the certain loss of an iconic species. . . . It has become clear that salmon conservation is being used as a 'means to an end' [dam removal] as opposed to an 'end' of its own accord," Newhouse said, reading quotes from the book.
The hearing included testimony from people invited by the committee to represent the BPA, Bonneville ratepayers, wheat growers, power trade, barge transportation, and the business community.
And while pro-dam constituents dominated the witness list, voices from tribal and fishing interests were included with McCoy Oatman, vice chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe, and Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.
Spain told the committee that the Columbia River is also the lifeblood for fishermen. The industry, he said, generates $500 million-$600 million a year in the wholesale value of fish, generating more than $1.25 billion to the region in economic benefits. "That's only a fraction of the potential for the river," he said, noting that an estimated 10 million to 16 million fish that once returned to the basin have been reduced to between 1.2 million and 2.5 million.
Testifying on the fishing industry's objections to H.R. 3144, Spain quoted from an Aug. 16, 2017, letter signed by 47 scientists and fishery managers, who wrote that they "reaffirm the benefits of spill for salmon and steelhead of the Snake/Columbia river basin as an essential interim measure awaiting a legally valid scientifically credible long-term plan."
The scientists and fish managers wrote that they support an immediate increase in spill levels, noting "With existing dams in place, spill offers the best potential to improve life-cycle survival."
Flores disputed the benefits of spill in her testimony, stating, "There is no proof that more spill will be better for salmon," she said, and added that NOAA Fisheries science center modeling shows that this year's added spill will have "little to no impact on salmon survival."
Flores said that RiverPartners supports salmon restoration actions that are based on sound science. "Sadly, I'm here today to tell you that decisions surrounding the operation of the federal hydropower system and endangered salmon that affect every person in the Northwest are currently not being made based in sound science or cost effectiveness, but by a district court judge in Portland, Oregon," she said. "And, anti-dam forces are once again trying to make the Snake River dams a scapegoat in salmon, and now orca, restoration efforts."
She said the federal hydropower system is at great risk due to 20 years of litigation that has derated the system already by over 1,000 MW, and has increased Bonneville's rates roughly 30 percent in the last few years, "created huge uncertainty over how the federal hydrosystem will be operated, and at what cost, even next year."
Flores also addressed the issue of Snake River dam removal, saying that some groups are pushing it as the "silver bullet" for the basin's salmon recovery effort. "It is a false premise, but a powerful fundraising tool for some of these organizations," she said before quoting the same excerpts from Kareiva's book that Newhouse later reiterated in closing the hearing.
Oatman said he understands those in the room who were there to represent benefits of the federal hydropower system for their constituents. "I am here to speak for those that are not here yet--those that are unborn--and to ensure that they have a way of life past the time I am here," he said. Oatman noted that the Nez Perce didn't sign the Columbia Basin Fish Accords, as other tribes have. "The other tribes don't live above all these dams," he said. And while the Nez Perce have had their day in court, he said they want to continue in a collaborative fashion.
"This hearing is really important. It's really important to hear from all parties, but also the Nez Perce, who have been here for tens of thousands of years," he said. "I want to continue that future for my people. For my children. . . . And so it is my battle here today to ensure that there will be fish in the waters for them."
The hearing began with strong pro-dam statements from Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), who chairs the House Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans; Newhouse (R-Wash.), who was at home in his 4th Congressional District; and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), who sponsored H.R. 3144, a bill to roll back the court-ordered spring spill and enable federal agencies to operate under the 2014 biological opinion until a new environmental impact statement is completed.
The bill passed the House in April, and has yet to see action in the Senate. A rider in the 2018 Energy and Water Resources Appropriations Bill that would have eliminated the increased spill obligation next year, was removed in the Senate's version of the appropriations bill. Newhouse and McMorris Rodgers are former members of the House committee.
Between the three, praises for the federal hydrosystem were many.
"What often gets lost in the conversation inside the beltway is the impact that this federal infrastructure has on the lives of real people, and the immense value the Federal Columbia River Power System creates for the region," Lamborn said. He harkened back to President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, noting construction of Grand Coulee and Bonneville dams was a centerpiece.
Lamborn quoted Roosevelt's 1937 Bonneville Dam dedication speech. "He stated that 'in the construction of this dam, we have had our eyes on the future of the nation. Its cost will be returned to the people of the United States many times over, in the improvement of navigation and transportation, the cheapening of electrical power, and the distribution of this power to hundreds of small communities within a great radius.'"
Lamborn talked about the role that hydroelectric power played during World War II, including a quote from President Harry Truman, "who stated that 'had we not had that power source, it would have been almost impossible to win that war.'"
He went on to say that only since the early 1990s has the federal hydrosystem become an issue, and promised, "Those of us in Congress owe it to you all here today to make good on the promises of the past, and to do everything we can to protect this critical infrastructure that makes possible the way of life in the Pacific Northwest."
Newhouse said he requested the hearing to coincide with the annual RiverFest celebration "because I believe it's important that Congress is educated about how vital our federal river system is to the Pacific Northwest." Newhouse talked about its importance to farming from irrigated lands, to navigation by getting the region's many products to port in an export-driven economy, to flood control for the region's communities, and to providing clean, renewable and affordable power that supports the thriving recreational, manufacturing and technology industries.
"Unfortunately, in my opinion, misguided movements continue to push for the destruction or degradation of our river power system," he said.
Newhouse talked about how, after years of collaboration with stakeholders, states and tribes, and with the support of both the Bush and Obama administrations to develop a new biological opinion, "a single federal judge in 2016 overturned the plan which governs the operations and salmon protection management plans for the river system."
He noted that the judge is forcing many of the projects to spill water to maximum levels, and federal agencies to consider breaching the four lower Snake River dams it their next biological opinion.
He concluded by saying, "I will not stop working on behalf of this vital system. It is my hope, for this hearing today, that a national audience will learn more about the myriad of benefits this system provides, and how our rivers truly do provide for our way of life."
McMorris Rodgers spoke to the specifics of those benefits.
She said the four lower Snake River dams generate enough electricity to power nearly two million homes--a city the size of Seattle. All together, the state's hydropower provides almost 70 percent of the state's electricity needs, she said. "And, they provide reliable baseload, important energy to meet BPA's peak loads during the hottest days of summer, when the wind doesn't blow, or in the winter, when the sun doesn't shine."
She said the dams have also transformed sagebrush into prime farmland, and its barging system transports those crops for Washington state's No. 1 industry--agriculture.
Washington state, she said, is the most trade-dependent state in the country," she said, with 40 percent of jobs tied to trade. The river's barge system offers an efficient, cost-effective and low-carbon means of transportation. "It would take 174,000 semi trucks to move the goods which travel by barge each year. One barge equals 134 trucks," she said. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Oregon DEQ Issues Certification For Klamath Dam Removal
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has issued a final water quality certification for the removal of J.C. Boyle Dam in Oregon, finding that dismantling the dam on the Klamath River will improve water quality in the long run. The Klamath River Renewal Corp. (KRRC), which expects to decommission four dams on the Klamath River--including three more in California--called the certification a "major milestone."
Formed to take over operations of the four dams from PacifiCorp and oversee the removal and river restoration work, the Renewal Corp. still must win a water quality certification from the California State Water Resources Control Board to remove Copco No. 1, Copco No. 2 and Iron Gate dams in Siskiyou County, Calif., which is expected in 2019. It also needs Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval to transfer a project license for the lower four dams from PacifiCorp and approval to surrender the transferred license for decommissioning.
Depending on the timing of those approvals, KRRC plans to begin site preparations in mid-2020, with removal work to begin in 2021. According to its Definite Plan filed with FERC in June, reservoirs behind the dams would be drawn down slowly, over a period of two or three months. Dam removal and river restoration work would take five to ten years, and is expected to cost an estimated $397.7 million.
Oregon's water quality certification comes after an extensive evaluation of the potential impacts to water quality in the Klamath River, and aquatic species, during and after the dam's removal. With conditions, it affirms that the project will comply with the state standards for water quality, and the federal Clean Water Act. Mitigation measures will include developing plans for water quality management, reservoir area management, site restoration, erosion and sediment control, spill responses, waste disposal, and measures to protect fish passage, suckers, and the western pond turtle. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Power Council Releases Draft Annual Report to Congress
A draft report from the Northwest Power and Conservation Council to Congress describes Fiscal Year 2018 as "turbulent."
The Council on Sept. 12 approved the draft, which is out for public review through Dec. 14. The annual report is required under the Northwest Power Act.
"Change continues to rock the West Coast and Northwest energy markets as the transition continues away from coal-fired power plants to a broader mix of hydropower, wind, and solar, augmented by utility investments in energy efficiency, demand response, new and more efficient natural gas-fired plants, and experiments in energy storage to offset the intermittent output of sun and wind," the report begins.
The summary spells out issues related to transmission systems, sharing of generating resources, and the abundance of inexpensive natural gas.
It notes that BPA Administrator Elliott Mainzer "told the Northwest Power and Conservation Council in March and again in June 2018 that as the result of waves of inexpensive renewable energy flooding the marketplace the federal power marketing agency's electricity is not priced competitively."
Despite Bonneville's long-term contracts through 2028, Mainzer has instructed managers throughout the agency to look for places to cut costs, the report continues. It also describes cost-cutting efforts already made by the Council.
The 39-page document includes a detailed look at both the energy and fish and wildlife issues faced by the Council during the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.
A section on power discusses the success of energy efficiencies, advancement of renewable power, digital currency mining, energy-saving by cannabis growers, examinations of solar power and energy storage, and the Council's work to map the Northwest's energy supply.
The fish and wildlife portion of the report discusses the Council's amendment process for a new fish and wildlife program; issues such as sea lions, northern Pike and invasive mussels; and a settlement with Idaho over the wildlife impacts from Albeni Falls Dam.
Comments, to be considered before a final report is sent to Congress in January 2019, should be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org, with "Draft 2018 Annual Report in the subject line; or mailed to Mark Walker, director of public affairs, NPCC, 851 S. W. Sixth Ave., Suite 1100, Portland, OR. 97204. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Oregon Group Releases First Report on Ocean Acidification
The group working to create an action plan for the Oregon Legislature on ocean acidification and hypoxia released its first biennual report since being formed last year.
On Sept. 15, the Oregon Coordinating Council on Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia came out with 38 recommendations, ranging from monitoring the ocean and supporting new initiatives for resilience in the ecosystem to keeping lawmakers informed and developing guidance for state agencies on how to prioritize addressing or preventing these ocean conditions.
The report says that new research is finding a growing list of marine organisms vulnerable to ocean acidification or to hypoxia, including salmon.
According to the group, the Oregon coast experienced firsthand the devastating impacts of ocean acidification in 2007, when the Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery lost 75 percent of the larvae it needs to produce oysters.
State researchers and the oyster industry worked together to determine that the cause was a summer upwelling of deep, acidified ocean waters that changed the pH of the water at the oyster beds and made it more acidic.
In addition, the coast has seen several hypoxia events, caused by low oxygen levels in the water, which can lead to a die-off of crabs and other marine life.
Last year, the Legislature passed SB 1039, creating the council with co-chairs from Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Oregon State University. Over the next year, the group will work with lawmakers, the governor and the public to develop an action plan, to be finalized next year. -K.C. Mehaffey
THE ARCHIVE :: Previous NW Fishletter issues and supporting documents.
NW Fishletter is produced by NewsData LLC.
Publisher/Editor-in-Chief: Mark Ohrenschall, Editor: K.C. Mehaffey
Phone: (206) 285-4848 Fax: (206) 281-8035