Wealth Of Data Gathered In Month-Long International Salmon Expedition
Some of the initial observations by a team of 21 scientists who sailed the North Pacific's high seas for a month to study salmon in the Gulf of Alaska concluded that pink salmon, the North Pacific Ocean's most abundant, were surprisingly scarce; that coho, which are thought to hang close to coastal areas, were found hundreds of miles offshore; and that chum were looking notably skinny.
The trip on the Russian research vessel Professor Kaganovskiy was the first winter voyage in decades to study Pacific salmon in the open ocean, and the first ever to bring together top researchers from Russia, Korea, Japan, Canada and the U.S.
Scientists believe that one-third of all Pacific salmon that originate from those five countries spend winters in the Gulf of Alaska, but have little data on their winter whereabouts.
The expedition is one of many events organized for the International Year of the Salmon, a five-year initiative to build resilience for salmon and people by sharing knowledge and raising awareness.
"I think it was successful in so many different ways," Laurie Weitkamp, the trip's chief U.S. researcher and a fisheries biologist at NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center, told the Northwest Fishletter a few days after her return to land on March 18.
Weitkamp said one of the objectives--determining whether international scientists could work effectively together--was certainly accomplished. Despite language barriers and slight but significant differences in scientific methods, team members quickly figured out how to accommodate each other, she said.
One of the Russian scientists who is married to a Canadian helped translate, she said, and also noted, "You can actually do a lot with hand gestures, like thumbs up or down."
Scientifically, the team set out to discover some basic information about five species of salmon in the North Pacific, such as stock abundance, composition and the condition of Pacific salmon at the end of their first winter in the ocean.
In a very preliminary estimate made from about 400 salmon caught at 60 sampling stations, the team determined that that roughly 55 million salmon were wintering in their sampling area of about 700,000 square kilometers--or 270,271 square miles--in the middle of the Gulf of Alaska this year. The area is between 139 and 148 degrees west longitude and 47 and 53 degrees north latitude.
Weitkamp said much of the data they gathered has yet to be compiled and analyzed. But even a first glimpse of the immediate results brought some surprises.
The most notable is that coho were the second-most abundant species netted while traveling in a grid pattern some 4,800 nautical miles.
"In all of the high seas work that normally occurs during the summer, they pick up very few coho," Weitkamp said. So scientists couldn't believe that in net after net, coho kept showing up hundreds of miles offshore, she said. "Maybe they're out in the winter and then head back to the shore," she surmised. Or perhaps this winter was somehow different from most years. That will remain unknown until follow-up surveys can be done, she noted.
Weitkamp said although the information from this year's survey is expected to be extremely informative, scientists have to be careful not to draw too many conclusions until findings are repeated in subsequent years. "I've been trying to use the analogy of, if you only go to New York City on New Year's Eve, you'd get a very different impression than if you went any other time. We don't know if we were there on New Year's Eve, or another time."
Another surprise was that pink salmon comprised only 10 percent of the salmon caught, even though they're known to be by far the most abundant salmon species in the North Pacific. Pink salmon return to rivers to spawn after just one year in the ocean, and run sizes trend especially high in odd years--such as 2019.
"It was really puzzling," Weitkamp said. "They get these massive runs in odd years, so we were expecting to see a lot of pinks out there, and we didn't."
Scientists are guessing that perhaps most of the pink salmon were wintering south of their survey area, since those that were caught were mainly in the southern end, where the water was warmer.
Chum also tended to be more abundant in the southern portions of the grid, while sockeye were more abundant in the more northern locations with cooler water.
Weitkamp said it was not as surprising that they only captured three Chinook, both because they are one of the ocean's least abundant, and also because they tend to be in deeper locations. "We were fishing pretty close to the surface, so I think we were too shallow," she said.
Weitkamp said except for chum, most of the salmon they caught were in good condition, even though it was near the end of the winter. "Most of the coho and sockeye we caught looked great," she said. "They were pretty fat. But the chum were really skinny. But these are the survivors. We think from here on out, they're going to do great," she said, adding, "We were already seeing a plankton bloom as we were coming back."
The scientists won't just go by looks to determine the condition of the salmon they caught, however. Bringing back samples of each fish's spleen, heart, liver, kidney, muscle and brain, they'll conduct a variety of studies to dig down to the next level of their health, she noted.
They'll also study the tiny bones found in the ears of the fish to look at growth rates to try to determine why some salmon survive, and the vast majority die before returning home to spawn.
There is still much information to be analyzed, Weitkamp noted. In addition to catching salmon, the scientists took measurements such as temperature, salinity, and acidity at each station, and logged the many other marine creatures that were captured.
"I can't wait," she said. "I think the findings we come up with--even though it's just one time--could really shed a lot of light on what's going on in the North Pacific in winter. Everything from water temperature and chemistry to salmon," she said.
Weitkamp said in addition to scientific discoveries, highlights of the trip involved getting to see the many differences between the Russian research vessel and U.S. research ships. Weitkamp offered her observations in her own writings, describing the homey atmosphere of the Professor Kaganovskiy, with its lace curtains, living plants, and a cat who'd lived there its entire life. Drawers and counter spaces were filled with things left by previous researchers, and meals were rich with international flavor.
Best of all, she said in the interview, was the shared feeling of purpose by all those aboard, despite their differences in language and customs.
"The last two days, we put a live box on the trawl to try to catch fish that were good enough to tag and release," she said. "When we were pulling the net in, it was like 2 a.m., and I turned around and everybody that was up was watching to see what we got. This was like Haul 62 on Day 27, and people were still interested--scientists and non-scientists. And when everyone saw we got fish in the net, it was like we'd won the Superbowl."
Longtime Canadian researcher Dick Beamish led the campaign to make the voyage happen, and with Brian Riddell, executive director of the Pacific Science Foundation, raised $1.2 million from private citizens, groups and governments to charter the vessel.
Future expeditions are being planned. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Ocean Conditions Shift, Tentatively Offering Good News For Future Returns
Young salmon and steelhead heading out to the Pacific Ocean this year are finding cooler water and a healthier coastal environment compared to conditions over the last several years, according to a new report by NOAA Fisheries.
Multiple indicators show that marine conditions are improving along the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California, including better survival of juvenile and adult salmon--particularly coho in the northern part of the system, NOAA researchers said.
While most salmon and steelhead runs in the Columbia River are likely to remain depressed this year, the improved conditions could bode well for future runs, scientists said.
However, there is also evidence that the 2014-2015 ocean heat wave--known as The Blob--is having a lingering impact on the ecosystem, they said.
The agency presented its annual status report on the California Current Integrated Ecosystem Assessment to the Pacific Fishery Management Council on March 7, followed by a media teleconference on March 8. It's the 7th annual report to the fisheries council, which manages fishing for 119 species along the Pacific Coast, ranging from salmon and tuna to anchovies and groundfish.
Jameal Samhouri, a marine ecologist at NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center, said the positive indicators could mean that the ocean is returning to more normal conditions some five years after the Pacific Ocean's longest and most severe heat wave hit, staying put for more than a year.
Scientists are concerned that marine heat waves are occurring more frequently, leaving ocean environments less time in between to recover, Samhouri said. "It's a pattern we're seeing across the world," he added, and then asked, "Is this the new normal, or will it come back to something more like what we saw prior to 2014?"
Brian Burke, research fishery biologist at the Science Center, said the question of whether the ocean will ever return to pre-Blob conditions is one he's heard frequently. His new answer, he said, is that changing conditions appears to be the only constant--and perhaps the new normal--in the Pacific Ocean.
In the last several years, scientists have seen The Blob--which caused major ecological changes ranging from the Pacific's largest toxic bloom of algae to the crashing of key portions of the ocean food web--along with two major El Nino and two La Nina events.
"We can't really count on typical or normal conditions anymore," he said in a March 12 presentation to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.
Currently, the ocean conditions are close to neutral, which is part of the reason scientists are optimistic about the potential for improved salmon returns next year. However, NOAA's Climate Prediction Center issued an advisory on March 14 stating that weak El Nino conditions have an 80 percent chance of continuing through spring, a 60 percent chance of persisting through summer in the northern hemisphere, and a 50 percent chance of continuing beyond summer.
Chris Harvey, also a Science Center researcher and a lead editor of the report, pointed to several positive indicators in what's known as the California Current Ecosystem in 2018.
The report tracks species up and down the Pacific Coast that are important to the marine food web, as well as climate and ocean conditions, to give the fishery council an idea of the ocean's health and productivity.
According to the report, ocean conditions were close to average in 2018, although a weak El Nino did recently emerge. Copepods off the Oregon coast were predominantly the cool-water northern species rather than the southern species that are smaller and have a lower fat and nutrient content.
"Positive values of northern Copepods in summer are correlated with stronger returns of Chinook salmon to Bonneville Dam," the report said. Scientists also found more anchovies, more sea lion pups, better sea lion pup growth and more fish-eating birds--all indicating improved conditions of the food web last year.
The report included the length of krill sampled off the coast of northern California, as a new indicator. Scientists found a shift in the 2017-2018 krill lengths, which were below average during much of the 2014-2016 ocean heat wave, but were typical of pre-heat wave conditions during wintertime.
"As with copepod community composition off Newport, these results imply more productive conditions for predators of zooplankton over the last two years," the report said.
June surveys of juvenile Chinook and coho salmon off the coast of Washington and Oregon are survival indicators during their first few weeks at sea, and also correlate to returns in later years. The subyearling Chinook catches were close to long-term averages in 2018, and catches of yearling coho were among the highest recorded. "These data suggest that the direct negative impacts of the marine heat wave on salmon survival have subsided," the report said. "However, other aspects of the ecosystem have not completely returned to normal, suggesting that indirect impacts on survival may still occur."
The report also looks at the most recent commercial fishing reports. While the 2018 catch reports are not yet available, in 2017, fish landings increased by 27.4 percent compared with 2016--a 12.3 percent increase in revenues.
Those increases were driven by the Pacific hake, Dungeness crab and market squid. With the exception of hake, landings of groundfish were near historic lows from 2013 to 2017, although 2017 did offer a slight increase. Commercial landings of salmon also declined sharply and remained low over the last several years. Recreational landings for Chinook and coho were near the lowest levels observed in recent decades, the report said.
"Our outlook suggests we are not quite out of the woods," Harvey said during the media conference. He said large numbers of pyrosomes--a warm-water species that increased dramatically during The Blob--continue to be abundant off Washington and Oregon, competing for plankton and inundating fishing gear.
He said 2018 also saw widespread algal blooms in Oregon and California, and extensive hypoxia and acidified water off Washington and Oregon. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Fish Managers Predict Another Dismal Year For Columbia's Salmon, Steelhead Runs
Except for a huge surge of coho, fishery managers are predicting another poor year for anadromous fish returning to the Columbia and Snake rivers this year.
In all, 1.3 million salmon and steelhead are expected to come back to the Columbia Basin. That's nearly twice as many as last year's returns, which totaled 665,000 fish. But nearly all of the extra fish will be coho. If forecasts are right, some 726,000 coho will come back--up dramatically from the 147,300 coho that returned in 2018.
Fishery managers from Washington, Oregon and Idaho provided detailed information about last year's returns and this year's expectations for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council on March 12.
They also talked about why many of last year's predictions were significantly higher than the real numbers, and--while it's too early for forecasts--how other runs could begin to recover next year due to improving ocean conditions.
Dan Rawding, Columbia River policy and science coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that while a lot of the runs last year were low, the 2018 summer steelhead return was the lowest since 1979--even worse than 2017 which was the second lowest.
And like some of the other runs, forecasters were off in their predictions--in this case, way off. Last spring, predictions put the summer steelhead returns at 190,350 fish. But only 100,483 came back, slightly better than half of what they expected.
This year, the forecast is for 126,950 summer steelhead returns, including 35,900 returning to the upper Columbia River; and 43,085 hatchery-origin plus 17,615 natural-origin returns to the Snake River.
Lance Hebdon, anadromous fishery manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said steelhead are particularly difficult to forecast because the majority spend only one year in the ocean and don't have any early-returning siblings to help forecasters, except for the rare steelhead that return to the ocean and come back for a second spawning. He said he's always "super cautious" about counting on steelhead forecasts because they are less reliable than many other stocks.
But other forecasts were also significantly higher than the actual returns, causing the U.S. v. Oregon Technical Advisory Committee to meet 28 times between April and October to receive updates on the run sizes and adjust fishing seasons when necessary to ensure enough fish would escape for hatchery needs and Endangered Species Act requirements.
Washington and Oregon closed the mainstem Columbia River and some of its tributaries to salmon and steelhead fishing due to the poor returns. Idaho closed its steelhead season under threat of a lawsuit, and reopened after an agreement was reached.
Responding to a Council question about the accuracy of their forecasts, Rawding said, "We're maybe as good as looking at the weather six months out. It's challenging, and we have limited information." He said budget cuts in 2011 resulted in dropping one of three annual ocean surveys that help them predict returns, and another potential cut could cause them to drop their May surveys.
Brian Burke, research scientist at NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center, told the Council that the 2017 surveys resulted in the lowest catch of coho and Chinook in the 21 years that they've been conducting the survey. "It suggested we would see low returns of coho in 2018--which we did--and low returns of Chinook in 2019," which is the expectation, he said. But in the 2018 survey, they captured "tons" of coho--one reason for this year's forecast for a much better coho return; while Chinook captures were closer to average, contributing to early predictions for a more normal Chinook run next year. He noted that forecasters don't rely solely on the catch surveys for their forecasts.
Rawding added that while the coho run is "one of the bright spots" in this year's forecast, returns have been highly variable, and their prediction may be optimistic.
Other forecasts this year are for 99,300 spring Chinook above Bonneville Dam, down from 115,000 fish returning last year. That includes 9,100 hatchery and 2,100 wild upper Columbia River spring Chinook. About 35,900 summer Chinook should also return to the upper Columbia. Oregon is expecting 42,490 spring Chinook in the Willamette River, and Idaho's forecast is for 25,701 hatchery-origin and 6,130 natural-origin spring/summer Chinook.
Total Columbia River fall Chinook are forecast at 340,400 fish, including 261,100 above Bonneville Dam. Idaho is forecasting 10,016 hatchery-origin and 5,435 natural-origin fall Chinook.
Sockeye are also expected to be lower, with 94,400 sockeye expected to return to the Columbia River, compared to 210,915 last year. Only 86 hatchery-origin and 43 natural-origin sockeye are expected to return to the Snake River.
Forecasters look for a slight increase in wild winter steelhead coming back to the Columbia River, at 14,400 fish compared to 11,323 last year. And preliminary forecasts show 10,000 chum returning to the river below Bonneville Dam, the same number as 2018.
Rawding also told the Council that, while scientists aren't sure how much of a role ocean conditions play in the number of salmon and steelhead returning to the Columbia River, the 63 percent smolt survival rates for steelhead and spring Chinook from Lower Granite to Bonneville dam has only fluctuated slightly since 2006.
"This is just some weight of evidence that, I think, shows a lot of what we have is driven by the ocean," he said. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Experts: As Climate Warms, Orcas Will Feel Impacts On Many Levels
The Southern Resident Orca Task Force heard dire warnings from experts on how continued climate warming is expected to impact the whales.
The group began its second year of work March 18 to develop long-term recommendations to save the endangered Puget Sound whales.
Climate change is expected to increase the severity of stresses that orcas and salmon are already experiencing, the group was told. As temperatures continue to rise, the whales will face a whole host of issues, including warmer water, higher sea levels, less snowpack, a changing runoff schedule, more water pollution and sediments, and more difficulties with echolocation. And the only way to prevent temperatures from going up forever is to achieve "net" zero greenhouse gas emissions, experts said.
During the meeting's afternoon session, Amy Snover, director of the University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group, told the task force that the orcas' ability to survive the effects of a changing climate will be determined by the choices we make today.
"This choice is about energy use," she said, noting that the type of fuels we use now will determine how much warming occurs. Their survival will also depend on whether and how we plan for "the climate we know is coming, not the climate we used to have."
After hearing about the serious challenges of global warming, the vast majority of people providing public comments at the end of the meeting called for removing the four lower Snake River dams, despite the impact that would have on greenhouse gas emissions. It was the only message from some of those who commented, and one of five "key actions" that several environmental groups asked the task force to take this year.
The four dams currently produce about 1,000 average megawatts of power. According to a Bonneville Power Administration fact sheet, replacing their energy with natural gas generation would increase carbon dioxide emissions by between 2 million and 2.6 million metric tons, equivalent to emissions from 421,000 cars.
NW Fishletter reached out to Snover to ask if the Climate Impacts Group has a position on removing the dams. In an emailed response, Snover confirmed that the sooner the world can drop to "net zero" greenhouse gas emissions, the less warming that will occur. Net zero emissions pathways generally assume drastic reductions in emissions, with continuing emissions offset by the removal of carbon from the atmosphere through methods like reforestation or carbon capture and storage.
"Hydropower is essentially carbon-free power, which is what we need," Snover wrote. However, she added, in order to ensure that orcas and salmon not only survive but thrive in the future, we will also need to reduce the current threats they face.
"Exclusively from the climate point of view, there are arguments for both keeping dams and for removing them," she wrote. "Do we do good in the short term (by focusing on improving habitat) while jeopardizing the long term (by eliminating a carbon-free source of power)? If we focus on the longer-term durable solution (transition to a carbon-free energy system), do we risk loss of what we're trying to save (because they can't survive both current threats and unavoidable impacts of climate change)?" she asked.
Snover added, "This type of situation, in which there are no easy answers and lots of complicated trade-offs, is the hallmark of climate change." She concluded, "In my opinion, one of the most urgent things for us to do is to come together as a society to examine the whole complexity of issues, like orca recovery, and engage in (small 'p') politics--discussing, identifying and negotiating priorities and solutions across multiple interests with our eyes wide open to the challenges we face and the consequences of both our actions and our choices not to act."
In front of the task force, Snover and Terrie Klinger, also from the Climate Impacts Group, described some of the impacts of climate change.
Klinger said two things are happening in the ocean as a result of greenhouse gas emissions. First, the ocean is absorbing some of the atmosphere's carbon dioxide--it has already taken in 31 percent of the carbon dioxide that has been emitted by industries and deforestation--causing ocean acidification. A more acidic ocean leads to harmful algal blooms. Studies have shown that under these conditions, coho experience a diminished sense of smell, which is needed to recognize the presence of predators.
Acidification also interacts with certain metals, causing added physiological effects to organisms exposed to them. Also, low-frequency sounds travel significantly farther with ocean acidification; so while the orcas' sounds may travel farther, they're also more likely to hear the low-frequency sounds from boats that impede their communications, Klinger said.
The emissions are also causing ocean temperatures to warm, she said. Studies have shown that salmon may require more food at higher temperatures, and many studies have shown that, at higher temperatures, ocean organisms are more sensitive to the same degree of ocean acidification, she said.
Snover outlined many of the freshwater impacts to rising temperatures. Salmon--which are adapted to specific timing of snowmelt--will see changes in the timing and levels of runoff, she said. Salmon eggs and juveniles will be threatened by higher high flows from heavier rainstorms and faster snowmelt. Adults and juveniles will be impacted by low flows, which are expected to become more acute. Water temperatures will increase even more under low flow and hot weather conditions, she noted.
She also said that a rising sea level will cause a permanent loss of some coastal habitat and inundation of estuaries. There will be more sediment in streams, as glaciers recede and exposed glacial rubble is washed downstream, and as flooding from heavier rainfall releases more sediment. More chemicals and pollution will be drawn into the aquatic system, both by rising sea levels that inundate industrial sites along the shoreline, and flooding streams.
Snover noted that globally, temperatures have already increased by 1 degree Celsius, or 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit.
She said even an increase to 1.5 C, is significant, as outlined in a recent Climate Impacts Group report.
Among the impacts that will affect salmon and orcas: the number of very hot days--those above 90 degrees--in Washington state will increase by 67 percent; the April 1 snowpack will drop by 38 percent; streamflows will increase by 16 percent in the winter and drop by 23 percent in the summer; and sea levels will rise by 1.4 feet by 2100.
While many of the ways that a warming climate will affect the orcas and the salmon they depend on are known, "It's an open question right now about how much and how fast the climate will change," Snover said. "That's because the uncertainty's on us--on us as a society."
She noted there are ways to limit rising temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius, but global emissions must start to decline well before 2030.
"The way I interpret it is, there are 12 years left before these really steep near-term reductions must be occurring so that we can be on a path towards net zero by 2050," she said. "A degree and a half matters, but we're on track to much more than that."
If greenhouse gas emissions continue at current levels, Snover said temperatures are expected to increase by a total of 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2050, and by 6 or 7 degrees Celsius (10.8 to 12.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Public Urges Washington To 'Stand Strong' On EPA Water Quality Certifications
Dozens of comments from the public and environmental groups ask the Washington Department of Ecology to exercise its authority under the Clean Water Act to address rising water temperatures in the Snake and Columbia rivers caused by dams and climate change.
The comments--many focusing on the need to recover salmon to help orcas, and some asking to remove the lower Snake River dams--continued to be submitted even after the EPA withdrew its request for water quality certifications at nine federal dams in the basin on Feb. 1.
Ecology signaled it intends to use this unusual authority to issue or deny Section 401 Water Quality Certifications for the federal dams under the Clean Water Act, emphasizing that in bold in a Feb. 28 letter to the EPA. "This letter shall not be considered a waiver of Washington State's Section 401 certification authority," it reads in part. If EPA decides to move forward with the withdrawn permits, "this letter is a denial of the Section 401 certification you requested."
The letter also tells the EPA it would value a timeline for when a new request for the water quality certification will be submitted, and notes that Ecology plans to provide a new public comment period once a new request is received. "We interpret from your verbal communications with us that completing this work is a priority for EPA," the letter adds.
EPA's request for state-issued water quality certification for the nine dams--including the four lower Snake River dams, four lower Columbia River dams and Grand Coulee Dam--came about as the result of a lawsuit settlement between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Columbia Riverkeeper. The EPA is in charge of issuing National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permits agreed to in the settlement, and the water quality certification is needed as part of those permits.
In September and October, EPA requested that certification from Ecology, and then withdrew its request on Feb. 1. The agency's reasons for withdrawing were clarified in a Feb. 15 letter from EPA to Ecology, which states, "The EPA determined that the permits require additional internal review and therefore withdrew the requests for water quality certification at this time. We fully intend to request CWA Section 401 certifications from Washington Department of Ecology after completing the internal review and updating the preliminary draft permits."
But Ecology was already seeking public comment on EPA's initial request, and despite the withdrawal, kept its comment period open through Feb. 19.
As noted in Ecology's letter to the EPA, "The majority of comments focus on the importance of ensuring all discharges from the dams meet state surface water quality standards. In particular, temperature was raised as a key concern to address, due to the importance of temperature in protecting and rebuilding salmon populations in the Columbia Basin and in achieving our state's recovery goals for salmon and Southern resident orca recovery."
Those comments are now available to the public. They include a few dozen from individuals, a handful from nonprofit groups, and one from Columbia Riverkeeper with 824 letters from individuals, many of them a variation of a form letter.
Some received later in the comment period expressed disappointment that EPA had withdrawn its request, and urged Ecology to "stand strong," or "stand firm" in its authority to require adherence to water temperature standards.
The letters sent by Riverkeeper say that climate change and dams combine to warm the Columbia and Snake rivers to unsafe levels, that salmon have difficulty migrating upstream when water temperatures exceed 68 degrees for several days at a time, and that those conditions are happening with increasing frequency due to climate change.
"Washington can require the Trump administration's EPA to protect the Columbia River's water quality and fisheries from the impacts of federal dams," the letters state, and conclude, "More than one third of the salmon and steelhead populations in the Columbia Basin vanished during the last century. With your leadership, Washington can help struggling Columbia River salmon runs--and the orcas they sustain."
A comment from the Natural Resources Defense Council says that scientists estimate the Columbia and Snake river water temperatures increase in early fall by an average of 6.3 degrees as a result of impoundment. It notes that Washington's current water quality standard is for a one-day maximum temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
"The violation of that standard is well documented, and the federal government has openly recognized that the largest contributor to the problem is the dams," NRDC stated. "However, this water quality standard has never been enforced at the federal dams."
The group also notes that salmon stop their upstream migration when river temperatures hit 72 or 73 degrees, and that fish ladders in particular create stress because of temperature differences due to water coming in from different depths.
Representing 17 organizations, the Orca-Salmon Alliance called it a "temperature crisis on the Snake and Columbia rivers," and wrote that warmer water holds less oxygen, which can cause salmon to have less energy for spawning and lower resistance to disease or ability to escape from predators.
The Alliance also noted that the Fourth National Climate Assessment projects salmon could lose 22 percent of their habitat in Washington state due to warming rivers.
The group's letter did not call for removing Snake River dams as a way to address temperature problems, but more than a dozen individual comments from the public did.
A few individual comments defended the dams. One said that applying the state standard to the federal dams will not work when the water temperature is already too high when it reaches the dams. It says that removing dams would not cool the water that's already too warm above them, but would add millions of tons of CO2 to the atmosphere. The comment suggested more realistic measures such as planting shade trees and ceasing harvest.
Another individual attached documents with water temperatures in the lower Snake River from the 1950s--before the dams were built--showing that temperatures from every year collected exceeded the 68-degree threshold, and reports from the late 1800s also showing temperature exceedances of the state standards. The comment asked Ecology to give the historical data some consideration and credence. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Montana Seeks Compensation For Libby Dam Storage In Next Treaty
Sixteen Montana lawmakers made a 400-mile round trip to Kalispell March 20 to ensure Columbia River Treaty negotiators got their message: Montana wants compensation for the impacts of Libby Dam, and assurances that in the new treaty Canada cannot divert extra water from the Kootenai River.
After passing a joint House and Senate resolution earlier in the day, Montana State Sen. Mike Cuffe (R-Eureka) handed an official copy of their request to Jill Smail, chief Columbia River Treaty negotiator with the U.S. Department of State, at a town hall meeting on the treaty in Kalispell, Mont.
Cuffe, whose Senate district hosts Libby in Lincoln County, thanked her and representatives from the U.S. entity--the Bonneville Power Administration, NOAA Fisheries, the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers--for coming to northwestern Montana to listen to people who were deeply impacted by the construction and operation of Libby Dam.
"We have felt disrespected, left out of the process, ignored," he told the negotiating team. "This means a lot that you came to Montana and came this close to the Lincoln County line."
Their visit was the third town hall meeting following a fifth round of negotiations with Canada to modernize the 1964 treaty. It was originally negotiated as a means to control flooding by holding back water in four huge reservoirs--three in Canada and one in Montana--and to share in the hydropower that was created by that storage.
Smail said in addition to using guidelines set out by the U.S. Entity's regional recommendation, she is hosting town hall meetings to hear directly from people in the Pacific Northwest who are most impacted.
She declined to answer any specific questions about ongoing negotiations, but noted that their objectives include continued management of flood risk, ensuring an economical and reliable power supply, and improving ecosystem functions for the benefit of fish and wildlife in both countries. She said negotiators are looking ahead to how the modernized treaty can be mutually beneficial, and that she's confident they'll find common ground.
While Smail's Kalispell remarks were similar to those she made at her last town hall meeting in Portland, the issues raised by those attending the Montana meeting were far different--assured water storage to prevent flooding, improved benefits for fish and wildlife, and the lack of tribal representation at the table were the top issues.
This time, Montana senators and representatives lined up at the microphone and, one after another, urged compensation for the benefits that Libby Dam provides--and the sacrifices that Montana residents have made and continue to make because of it.
"Mostly, people downstream are saying, 'We don't want our benefit reduced.' We're saying, 'We gave up a lot and haven't been compensated. We think we should be,'" Cuffe said in an interview with NW Fishletter.
According to their resolution, SJ 12--which unanimously passed the Senate and was one vote shy of unanimity in the House--Libby Dam produced 2.56 million MWh of power in 2017 at a net value of almost $127 million. It holds back an average of 5.8 million acre-feet of water in the 90-mile long Lake Koocanusa, half of which is in Canada. Dedicated in 1975, the dam flooded thousands of acres in Montana's Lincoln County. It's fed by the Kootenai River, which is the third largest tributary to the Columbia River, providing almost 20 percent of the lower basin's total water.
Joined by several residents and commissioners from Lincoln County, state lawmakers described the loss of timber and cattle production caused by the flooded lands, along with tax revenue from both the land and industries.
They said individual families who lost their land were not justly compensated, and those who now live around the lake experience health problems from the "dustbowl" created when water from the lake is drained and the silt is exposed to air and wind. And they noted that the tourism now generated by the lake suffers from unpredictable lake levels.
Lawmakers also asked the negotiating team to take out a provision in the current treaty that allows Canada to divert up to 1.5 million acre-feet of water from the Kootenai River at Canal Flats, British Columbia, before it flows into Montana. While Canada has never used the provision, it would have a devastating effect on the river, and on Libby Dam operations, the lawmakers said.
"Montana and Lincoln County have sacrificed to make the river system beneficial to all," Sen. Keith Regier told the panel. "Compensation needs to be fair to those on both sides of the border."
According to the treaty now in place, Canada is entitled to half of the downstream power benefits that were made possible by three hydroelectric dams built in Canada to store water in the upper Columbia River in addition to compensation for the dams' flood control benefits.
In an interview, Cuffe noted that Canada has been well compensated for the three dams it built to store water for flood control and hydroelectric generation, but Montana was left out of the equation. Yet Libby Dam has provided the same benefits to both the U.S. and Canada, since water held back from the Kootenai River then flows into Canada and is used to generate power at seven hydroelectric facilities in Canada before it comes back into the U.S. "I've suggested maybe Canada owes us for flood protection and the ability to generate power," he said.
Cuffe said it's up to negotiators to figure out how Montana should be compensated, although he has plenty of ideas. One method is to give Montana 20 percent of Canada's entitlements, which have ranged from $250 million to $300 million annually, he said.
Alternatively, he said, Montana could be compensated with a certain percentage of the power generated by Libby Dam and the water as it's released to generate power through the system. Basically, he said, "Montana should be compensated on equal par with Canada. Why would you treat Montana any differently than you'd treat a foreign state?" he asked.
But compensation for Montana wasn't the only issue raised during the meeting. Residents and visitors from other states asked the chief negotiator to ensure that the new treaty provides for the health of the ecosystem, continues to provide a clean and reliable source of power, and prevents major changes in water releases that could affect river transportation, irrigation, recreation and the stability of levees.
Gary Wiens, interim CEO of the Montana Electric Cooperatives' Association, told the negotiator that any costs for flood control should come from federal appropriations, as it does in other regions of the country. He also urged the negotiator to push for retaining more hydropower benefits for ratepayers in the U.S., noting that assumptions made in the first treaty that gave so many of the benefits from hydropower to Canada are no longer valid.
Paul Arrington, executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association, talked about the need for certainty in the management of water that flows down the Snake and Columbia rivers for other water uses, and added that the modernized treaty should not change any state-based water rights or laws, in particular a 2004 Snake River water rights agreement that is sometimes referred to as the Nez Perce Agreement.
Jim McKenna, natural resources policy advisor for Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, said he came to Montana to understand the unique concerns coming from the upper watershed and also to reiterate the importance of all three purposes of the treaty--including maintaining a reliable source of power, ensuring that the river is operated for strong flood management, and elevating ecosystem concerns to an equal footing with power and flood control.
Smail said negotiators continue to meet regularly with Columbia Basin tribes. She said she plans to host another town hall meeting sometime after the next round of negotiations on April 10 and 11 in Victoria, B.C., but has not yet determined a date or location. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Tribes Helping Repeat Spawners To Boost Idaho's B-Run Steelhead
Columbia Basin tribes have been working for 20 years to capitalize on steelhead's mystifying ability to repeat spawn, and recently got final recommendation from the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) to build a new reconditioning facility to boost the Snake River's famous B-run steelhead returns.
Repeat spawning is an odd little survival technique that only steelhead possess, of all the anadromous fish in the Columbia Basin.
The reconditioning facility is for kelts, steelhead that have already spawned and are on their way back to the ocean to feed, remature and gather strength for another return to their spawning grounds. But few make it back.
After years of research to develop the best methods to boost those returns, the tribes have been catching these post-spawn adults at juvenile bypass systems, holding and feeding them until they remature, and releasing them back in the river to spawn in the wild again.
The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and the Nez Perce Tribe believe that giving Snake River steelhead a second shot at spawning is one way to help increase the numbers of the larger B-run fish.
"Our research has shown that when they do spawn again, they're larger, and they produce more eggs and larger eggs, which is associated with better survival," Doug Hatch, a senior fisheries scientist for CRITFC, told NW Fishletter.
At an estimated cost of roughly $2 million, the facility to recondition Snake River kelts still needs a preliminary design and an operation and maintenance plan before CRITFC returns to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council for final approval. Construction of the facility, as part of the Nez Perce Tribal Hatchery new Lewiston, Idaho, should begin next year.
Their goal, once it's built, is to increase ladder counts of B-run steelhead passing Lower Granite Dam each year by 6 percent--an extra 180 adult females--released and ready to spawn again, Hatch said. According to the Bonneville Power Administration's environmental analysis of the project, "A kelt reconditioning program in the Snake River Basin is believed to be critical for increasing the returns of these fish to this level."
Idaho is well-known for its steelhead fishing, especially its B-run, which mostly return to the Clearwater River and are generally larger and come back later after spending two years in the ocean, compared to the A-run steelhead that return after one year.
Fish managers and others have been concerned about recent low returns of these larger steelhead. Last year, conservation groups threatened to sue the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to stop the harvest of hatchery steelhead until the agency promised tighter controls on steelhead fishing, and applied for an incidental take permit of wild steelhead from federal agencies.
Programs to recover the Columbia Basin's declining steelhead runs have included limits on fishing, restoring habitat, improving passage at hydroelectric dams, and developing hatchery programs. Currently, only the tribes are attempting to improve runs by boosting the number of repeat spawners. "It's a novel approach, and I think it has a lot of promise--particularly when the runs get into these low status positions," Hatch said.
He said that the return rates for repeat spawners vary. In the Yakima River, repeat spawners make up about 3 percent of the adult steelhead run, while in the Snake River, kelts returning to spawn a second time account for only about 1 percent. Partly because return kelts are so rare, the reconditioning program has the potential to vastly improve repeat spawning in the Snake River, he said.
In a 2016 letter to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, the Fish Commission noted, "Based on the 1-percent return rate in the Snake River, collecting and reconditioning kelt can provide over 100 times greater benefit to the population in terms of fish on the spawning grounds than their potential contribution as natural repeat spawners. Kelt reconditioning not only increases spawners on the spawning grounds, it plays an important role in the spread-the-risk strategy for steelhead; it helps to preserve the diversity of life history pathways in steelhead and can be used as a restoration tool for at-risk steelhead populations."
Hatch said that, historically, more steelhead returned to the Columbia River and its tributaries to spawn a second time, but downstream passage at hydroelectric dams is designed for juvenile fish, making it difficult for adult steelhead to return to the ocean and attempt another return. "The passage facilities are making improvements, but they were never envisioned to pass adult fish. They have small piping, which cause problems for the adults," he noted.
In 1999, CRITFC and the Yakama Nation began looking into methods to recondition steelhead in the Yakima River, to see if they could get kelts to remature and rebuild their strength without making a return trip to the ocean.
Over time, the tribes developed a successful method that involves capturing adult steelhead as they migrate downstream after spring spawning and transporting them to a reconditioning facility.
While held, they are fed a diverse diet that includes krill and squid, and are treated with antibiotics to help rebuild their immune systems. Some are held for about six months, until October, and then released into the stream where they were collected as the new steelhead run is returning. Those that do not remature in six months are held for 18 months before they are ready to be released, Hatch said.
The reconditioned fish--both at six months and 18 months--do not go to the ocean because they've already rematured before they're released, and instead join the run as it heads to their natal spawning grounds to lay eggs, Hatch said.
The program in the Yakima River was so successful, similar programs have been developed by Colville, Warm Springs and Nez Perce tribes in the Methow, Okanogan, Hood, Deschutes and now Clearwater basins.
Hatch noted that while the reconditioning generally occurs in a hatchery, the program is different from conventional hatchery programs. "These are wild fish that we're bringing into the facility. They've already spawned, and we recondition them and put them back out into the run at large," he said. "You're increasing the natural run with natural fish. There's a lot of upside, and not very much downside."
More recently, researchers have been working to determine which fish will require a full 18 months--known as skip spawners--and which will be ready to spawn again after just six months.
Hatch said that in nature, these skip spawners are more likely to occur in years when conditions were difficult for adult migration, whereas consecutive spawners happen when they've completed spawning and are still in relatively good condition. "It does vary annually, but it also varies by location. In the Snake, we do see higher rates of skip spawners than in the Yakima," he noted.
He said it's more cost-effective to recondition those that take only six months. But, he added, "There are tradeoffs because skip spawners are even larger, so you have even more eggs and bigger eggs, so there are some advantages."
The Columbia Basin tribes have been at the forefront of the research and are currently the only fish managers with kelt reconditioning programs, but Hatch believes that may change. "I think as the steelhead populations continue to go down--the most recent forecasts look pretty bleak--this becomes even more important, and there may be greater interest by others," he said. -K.C. Mehaffey
 In Throes Of Change, BPA Describes Issues Facing Fish And Wildlife Program
A top Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) official met with the Northwest Power and Conservation Council March 13 to discuss a multitude of changes now facing Bonneville, reinforcing the need to follow its 2018 strategic plan, which includes keeping Fish and Wildlife Program (FWP) costs at or below the rate of inflation.
Scott Armentrout, VP of environment, fish and wildlife, suggested that in order to meet that goal, Bonneville and the Council will need to prioritize BPA-funded projects based on their biological effectiveness and whether they mitigate for impacts to fish and wildlife from the Federal Columbia River Power System.
"Because the power market has changed so much, the competitiveness of power has required us to ask a lot of questions," Armentrout told the Council.
Those questions often relate to whether projects have a nexus to BPA's obligation to mitigate for fish and wildlife impacts caused by the federal hydropower system, and whether it's by law, or because of policies or other commitments.
Armentrout said questions are also being raised within Bonneville about whether fish projects are permanent, or if they can be considered complete after some amount of time.
The discussion came as the Council is working to amend its Fish and Wildlife Program, and just over a year after Bonneville unveiled its five-year strategic plan to remain financially viable over the next decade, as renewables and other market forces have changed the playing field.
Last June, BPA Administrator Elliot Mainzer visited the Council to stress the need to cut some $30 million from the Council's Fish and Wildlife Program, which is funded by BPA. In January, the agency gave the Council its final report on cuts to the fiscal year 2019 program, totaling about $6.4 million. BPA noted that the budget cutting is a "work in progress" and that some projects currently funded at half of 2018 levels will be eliminated next year.
Armentrout addressed the Council for the first time since joining BPA in November. He was welcomed, and also questioned about identifying biological effectiveness, cuts that have already been made, and what to do about projects that are locked in to the funding cycle.
Ted Ferrioli, Council member from Oregon, urged Armentrout to commit to more coordination between the Council and BPA when making cuts or prioritizing projects. "The rubber's going to meet the road with the commitment to stay at or below inflation," Ferrioli said. And implicit in that expectation is the need for prioritization. "If we're not coordinated, it's going to be very contentious," he noted.
In his presentation, Armentrout noted that the FWP has been ongoing for decades, that Bonneville has already spent billions of dollars to fund it, and that it continues to spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
A draft Council report on the 2018 program costs shows that BPA has spent $16.8 billion on it since 1981. Its direct expenses in fiscal year 2018 totaled $258.7 million, an increase of $4 million from fiscal year 2017.
Armentrout outlined many of the uncertainties now facing BPA that could impact program costs. He noted that action agencies will be issuing a draft environmental impact statement for Columbia River system Operations environmental impact statement (EIS) in February, followed by a final decision.
"That will be a big milestone, setting the stage for the next couple of decades or even longer into the future," he said.
Increased spill and dam breaching proposals will be fully examined in the EIS, he said, adding, "It'll be the most comprehensive analysis we've seen for both of those issues that have long been with us."
In addition, a new flexible spill agreement will go into effect this year, he said. Also, the Columbia Basin Fish Accord extensions are expected to be in place at least until the EIS is complete, but cautioning, "Our intent is to continue those extensions as long as we can, while leaving room to reassess."
The U.S. Department of State is negotiating with Canada to modernize the Columbia River Treaty, which could mean significant changes to hydroelectric operations that have been in place for a generation.
Changes are also occurring on the scientific front, in terms of understanding impacts from ocean conditions, climate change, and salmon predators, he said.
While answering questions from the Council, Armentrout acknowledged that wildlife projects often have well-defined milestones that can be reached, while fish projects tend to require continued funding. He said Bonneville recognizes that the Council's fish and wildlife restoration projects, especially those related to recovering fish populations, will never reach an endpoint. "It's not going to be complete. It's just not. It's going to be an ongoing obligation," he agreed.
However, he added, Bonneville does hope to see more transparency that describes why specific projects are or are not being funded, and uses business-like approaches to the projects that are supported. He said a lot of projects may be worthwhile, but may not be connected to BPA's obligations.
From land purchases or long-term research studies to maintaining and operating hatcheries, there aren't a lot of "exit ramps" in the program's committed funding, he said. When there are big chunks of the program costs that are not optional, they are left with only a small portion of the program that can be cut in order to rein in costs, he said.
Armentrout said that he's looking for the Council's help to identify priorities and areas of investment that are critical, and noted, "We are not the only funding agency out there, or the only one with obligations" to mitigate for impacts to fish and wildlife. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Corps Proposes Trap-And-Haul For Cougar Dam Passage
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is proposing to build a downstream fish passage facility at Cougar Dam in the upper Willamette River basin, and has issued an environmental assessment, which is now open to a 30-day public review period.
A 2008 biological opinion identified required actions to avoid jeopardizing Chinook in the Willamette River that are listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), including providing either structural modifications or major operational changes for downstream fish passage at Cougar Dam on the South Fork McKenzie River. That population of Chinook is considered to be at moderate risk of extinction, and the Corps considered 30 alternatives for downstream passage.
According to the assessment, the Corps is proposing to install a floating surface screen fish collector, and use trucks to haul trapped fish downstream from the dam. The design will also accommodate other species, including cutthroat, rainbow and bull trout. Fish would be transported at least once a day, and as many as eight times a day, depending on fish collection numbers.
Alternatives were evaluated based on biological efficiency, constructability, environmental impact, operation, and overall cost, the assessment says. The proposal would result in negligible to moderate impacts due to construction, and would result in improvements to survival of fish that spawn above the dam.
Cougar Dam is a high-head hydroelectric project on the McKenzie River, and one of 13 dams operated by the Corps within the Willamette Project. It restricts access to historical spawning and rearing areas for ESA-listed Chinook salmon.
The dam's construction included both upstream and downstream facilities, but both were deemed inadequate and eventually closed. The Corps has transported hatchery-origin adult Chinook above the dam since 1993, and began transporting natural-origin adult Chinook above the dam in 2010, when an adult fish collection facility was completed.
A downstream passage facility is expected to boost returns, the analysis says. Comments on the draft assessment can be sent to email@example.com until April 10. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Low Flows From Cold, Dry Weather Causing Columbia Basin Fish Problems
This year's extremely cold February followed by a cold and extremely dry March have combined to create some unusual situations for fish managers in the Columbia Basin--including trapped sturgeon, extended chum operations, and emergency water releases to save hatchery fish.
With only a quarter to a third of the normal precipitation in much of the basin in March, the Columbia River Technical Management Team (TMT) expressed continuing concerns at its March 20 meeting about low river flows throughout the region.
"We've been below average, and we're continuing to go below average," TMT Chair Doug Baus reported for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He noted the April-to-September water supply forecast at The Dalles is down to 83 percent of average, and April-to-July at Lower Granite Dam is 88 percent.
The low snowpack in the upper Columbia, along with the unseasonably cold weather, caused concerns for salmon managers and hydropower producers. Significantly colder-than-average temperatures kept the snowpack solid into March. The cold weather, low flows for hydropower production and high natural gas prices prompted the Bonneville Power Administration to ask customers on March 1 to reduce energy use when possible to relieve stress on the power system.
But warming temperatures brought a bit of good news for TMT members, who had been meeting weekly to decide whether to keep releasing water from Grand Coulee Dam to ensure that chum salmon nests--or redds--below Bonneville Dam have a minimum tailwater elevation of 11.3 feet. In addition, the water protects redds of about 14,000 fall Chinook that spawned below Bonneville Dam this year. The chum are threatened under the Endangered Species Act, while the Chinook are not listed.
Team members learned at their March 6 meeting that there's virtually no chance of making their April 10 target elevation of 1,283.3 feet behind Grand Coulee Dam, and that continuing to release water for chum would only draft the reservoir even farther below target.
On March 11, the Corps' Aaron Marshall reported that, in his analysis, Lake Roosevelt would drop an extra 10 feet by April 10 if the TMT decides to operate to a flow objective of 130,000 cubic feet per second for chum at Bonneville Dam, instead of dropping releases to meet the 65,000 cfs requirement to keep water flowing to fall Chinook redds at Vernita Bar below Priest Rapids Dam.
With a choice between taking an action that would almost certainly wipe out the emerging chum below Bonneville or drawing down a reservoir that may impact the survival of other juvenile salmon later this spring, the TMT opted to continue operations for chum and hope that a forecast of warmer weather would begin to melt snow and add to the river flows.
Finally, the Bureau of Reclamation reported there was enough melting snow in the Snake River by March 20 to augment the Columbia at Bonneville Dam so that extra releases from Grand Coulee Dam were not needed. Grand Coulee's reservoir elevation dropped from 1,269 feet on March 1 to 1,258.6 feet on March 20. Baus offered some hope for TMT members--a forecast of rain, just in time for spring break, he said.
The lower water levels mean the Corps will be operating at the minimum generation needed to maintain grid reliability, with the rest going to spill once spring requirements for juvenile fish passage begin, Baus noted. Total dissolved gas levels have increased, and are ranging between 109 and 114 percent in Bonneville's tailwater because of the low flows, which could impact the redds.
Low river flows from the lack of precipitation and late low-elevation snowmelt has been a problem throughout the Columbia Basin.
On March 4, the Corps came to the rescue at the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho Hatchery, where all of its burbot eggs could have been lost after the Kootenai River froze and surface water intake pumps could not bring cold water into the facility. Shawn Young, of the Kootenai Tribe, told the TMT on March 6 that temperatures were dropping below zero at night, and there wasn't enough depth in the water to create the pressure needed to pull water into the facility. The Corps increased outflows at Libby Dam from 4 kcfs to 10 kcfs to keep the pumps submerged, enabling the hatchery to continue operating.
Young said burbot eggs are extremely sensitive to temperature changes, and without river water, it's too difficult to maintain water that's cold enough for their needs. Without the extra water from Libby Dam, the facility would have had to release the eggs into the river.
At its March 13 meeting, TMT member Sue Ireland, who represents the Kootenai Tribe, thanked the Corps and the Bonneville Power Administration for supporting the emergency action and reported that operations at Libby Dam would return to normal by March 15.
Low flows also created a problem for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, which was called to Sturgeon Lake on March 16. The lake is fed by the Columbia River, and low water levels in the river had trapped an estimated 200 to 400 sturgeon in a pool in the lake during low tide, said Fish and Wildlife spokesman Rick Swart.
"Our folks have been attempting to move water into that pool as an interim measure to keep the fish wet, and to oxygenate the water," he told NW Fishletter.
Swart said his agency asked the Corps if they could get water released from Columbia River dams, but learned that most of the nearby dams are not used for storage.
"They would have had to start releasing water clear up [at Grand Coulee Dam], and who knows when that would raise the level of Sturgeon Lake," he said.
Additional snowmelt and the ocean tides came to their rescue. By Tuesday, fish biologists reported seeing only 20 to 30 sturgeon still in the pool. "The presumption is, a good chunk of them were able to escape" during high tide, he said.
Swart noted that the sturgeon had been creating a deeper area in the pool with their swimming movements to dig into the mud. "That's just another one of those miraculous stories of how wildlife adapts to Mother Nature. But with that said, we were not going to sit around and count on that adaptability."
He said although nearby residents had never before seen sturgeon trapped in the lake by low water, "those fish have been there for 300 million years, and probably dealt with it a time or two." -K.C. Mehaffey
 Protest By Competing Contractor Delays Fish Count Reports
The web-posting of some data from adult fish counts at six dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers will be delayed for the next three months after a company that was under contract to conduct the counts formally protested the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' award of its contract to a new company in November.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) denied Normandeau Associates' protest on Feb. 6, and the Corps is now giving the new contractor until June to fully assume all requirements in the contract.
According to a Corps news release, the Wenatchee, Wash.-based Four Peaks Environmental Science & Data Solutions was scheduled to begin fish-counting duties at the Corps' four lower Snake River and four lower Columbia River dams on March 1, under a $2.6 million base-year contract, with options for the Corps to award up to five additional years. Due to the delay, the Corps hired experienced fish counters to work at Bonneville and Lower Granite dams--the two deemed most critical for fish managers--to count fish and post data within the usual timeframe on the Fish Passage Center's website. The information is typically posted within 24 hours.
Fish ladders at the other six dams--The Dalles, John Day, McNary, Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental and Little Goose--will be video recorded beginning April 1, with data to be reviewed and counted within three to five days if staff are available, the news release said.
"Because of the three-month delay created by the protest, it was not possible to have the new contractor performing the obligations of the contract by March 1," Corps fish biologist Chris Peery said in the release.
The GAO decision says that three companies submitted bids, and one of them was technically unacceptable. Four Peaks submitted the lowest acceptable bid, just over $11.1 million, compared with Normandeau's price of just under $13 million. Normandeau challenged Four Peaks' proposal, claiming that the company itself lacks the relevant experience, and that it was improper for the Corps to consider experience of the company's personnel. The GAO disagreed, noting the Corps' solicitation did not limit consideration of the company's personnel or subcontractors.
Adult fish counts are widely used by fishermen, fishery managers and others. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Hearing On Willamette Injunction Set For April 4
A federal judge in Oregon will hear oral arguments on April 4 to decide whether to order a preliminary injunction requiring immediate operational changes--including spill and drawdowns--at Willamette Basin hydroelectric projects to help spring Chinook and steelhead.
U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez is scheduled to hear arguments in Northwest Environmental Defense Center et al. v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, et al.
The plaintiffs--Northwest Environmental Defense Center, WildEarth Guardians and the Native Fish Society--asked the court in November to grant a preliminary injunction that would include a two- to four-week spring spill at Lookout Point Dam, and drawdowns in winter and spring at four dams including Lookout Point to help juvenile fish migrate downstream.
Federal attorneys representing the Corps said in a February response that science does not support the proposed operations, which would provide no benefit to steelhead and could devastate a "strongly performing Chinook population."
The Corps argued that it has already reinitiated consultations with the National Marine Fisheries Service for a new biological opinion, and that an injunction would divert time away from that effort and usurp the Endangered Species Act process.
In a reply brief filed on March 19, the plaintiffs say that the Corps' response is "emblematic" of how the agency has treated its responsibility to protect salmon and steelhead throughout the Columbia and Willamette basins.
"Rather than making changes to dam operations that would immediately benefit the species, the Corps resists such changes by claiming that it needs to undertake years of further analysis--until this Court has ordered it to take immediate actions," the reply said.
"This Court should order such actions now to reduce the ongoing and continuous harm from operation of the Willamette Project to threatened salmon and steelhead, as it has with the Columbia River dams, because waiting for some future, speculative actions could well be too late for these declining species," it continued.
The reply also said the government's declaration relies on a Corps biologist who makes incorrect and flawed assumptions about the proposed operational changes, rather than biologists from the National Marine Fisheries Service who worked directly on the Willamette Project.
Also at issue is whether declarations by two former National Marine Fisheries Service--filed by plaintiffs in the case--should be disqualified. Federal defendants say their testimony violates the Ethics in Government Act, while plaintiffs say the act doesn't apply when it helps further public interest.
The city of Salem and Marion County are intervenor-defendants in the case, each with an interest in possible drawdowns at Detroit Dam, which supplies water to Salem. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Council Releases Annual Fish And Wildlife Costs Report
The Northwest Power and Conservation Council has released its draft annual report on Fish and Wildlife Program costs, which is open to public comment until April 15.
The Council has provided the annual report on the fish and wildlife costs incurred by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) since 2001, in response to a request from the governors of Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.
Information in the report is supplied by Bonneville and covers fiscal year 2018, from Oct. 1, 2017, through Sept. 30, 2018.
This year's report includes a section about the 2018 spill surcharge and allocation of overhead costs. It notes that Bonneville's surplus power sales were lower than usual as a result of court-ordered spill to help juvenile salmon migrate past eight dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers. To make up for lost revenue, BPA charged the fish and wildlife budget $20 million, the report says.
Total costs of $480.9 million include $258.7 million in direct expenses for projects ranging from habitat restoration to research and some fish hatchery costs. That's $30.5 million more than 2017 total costs of $450.4 million, and $4 million more in direct expenses compared to 2017's $254.7 million.
However, 2017 was an unusual year, as BPA's power purchases were calculated at negative $20.5 million. That's because operating the dams for fish actually pushed some generation into months with higher power prices, resulting in the value of gained generation to more than offset the value of lost generation.
Overall, the 2018 costs were similar to those in 2016, which represented a significant drop from the previous two years, when total costs totaled more than $750 million.
The 2018 costs include $2.9 million in forgone hydropower sales revenue resulting from dam operations that benefited fish but reduced hydropower generation.
They also include $24.3 million in power purchases, incurred when Bonneville bought power during dam operations that were curtailed due to fish-related operations, including spilling water in the spring or storing it in the winter to help spring flows.
The total also includes $89.9 million to reimburse the Treasury for costs by other agencies for fish passage, fish production, and hatchery maintenance and operations; and $105.1 million for debt service of capital investments.
Including 2018, the Fish and Wildlife Program has cost a total of $16.8 billion since 1981, the report said. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Chelan PUD, Columbia Riverkeeper Settle Over Oil Leaks
Chelan County PUD has agreed to apply for pollution discharge permits at its two hydroelectric projects on the Columbia River, resolving the threat of a lawsuit by Columbia Riverkeeper.
It's the first time a PUD has agreed to obtain a pollution discharge permit for a dam operated on the Columbia, and to monitor and reduce harmful lubricants, which Columbia Riverkeeper says is required by the Clean Water Act.
Under the agreement, the PUD will apply for a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for Rocky Reach and Rock Island hydroelectric dams.
The PUD said in a news release that it will also spend $105,000 to improve water quality in areas around both dams. It will also evaluate whether it can expand the use of environmentally friendly lubricants over the next year, and work to further develop a program to better track oil and other lubricants as they enter and leave the project.
"We have been actively seeking to reduce oil releases from our hydro projects for many years," General Manager Steve Wright said in a press release. "We view this settlement as helping us move toward a goal we embrace."
Columbia Riverkeeper notified the three Mid-C PUDs--Chelan, Douglas and Grant--in September of its intent to sue over oil and lubricant leaks and spills.
"The settlement sends a powerful message: PUDs have the same responsibility as private companies and the federal dam operators to reduce toxic pollution and prevent dangerous oil spills," Riverkeeper's executive director Brett VandenHeuvel said in a separate news release.
In December, the group filed a lawsuit against Douglas County PUD, which says in its reply to the U.S. District Court complaint that the pollution discharge permit is unnecessary because it already has a water quality certification issued by the Washington Department of Ecology.
Columbia Riverkeeper also settled lawsuits with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which agreed to seek NPDES permits for oil leaks and pursue the use of less harmful oils at nine federal dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers.
In preparing those permits, the Environmental Protection Agency triggered the need for water quality certifications from the Washington State Department of Ecology earlier this year, but the federal agency later withdrew its request and indicated it was working on a new draft. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Burbot Make A Comeback In Idaho's Kootenai River
Burbot--a native resident fish that had all but disappeared from the Kootenai River--have made a comeback.
Idaho's only burbot population was so low that the state had prohibited fishing for them since the mid-1990s. By the early 2000s, there were an estimated 50 of the fish--also known as ling cod or freshwater cod--left.
In January, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game opened the first burbot fishing season in 27 years, with a population of more than 40,000 fish, including 18,000 adults.
Work to bring them back was a joint effort by the state and the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho, with funding support from the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) as mitigation for impacts from Libby Dam.
The tribe worked with the state and the University of Idaho to study the burbot life cycle and figure out how to develop a hatchery program. They've also transported burbot from British Columbia and released them in the Kootenai.
In 2005, Bonneville signed a memorandum of understanding to support the tribe's effort to recover the fish. After years of study, the tribe opened the Twin River Hatchery, half dedicated to burbot production and the other half to white sturgeon. The restoration targets to open a fishery, set in 2005, have now been met.
According to a news release from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, biologists will continue to work to develop a self-sustaining population of burbot in the wild, although they're facing a couple of issues. Burbot need "super cold" water to spawn, and water temperatures in the Kootenai River in February and March are often too warm, according to a news release from BPA.
Also, when conditions are cold enough, the larvae often starve due to poor food-web dynamics.
Bonneville is now supporting the tribe's efforts to improve habitat in the river's tributaries for spawning. So far, 73 acres of floodplain and 7.5 miles of river channel have been restored.
"It's all about habitat restoration, re-activating the floodplain and restoring the food chain for these fish," Kootenai Tribal fisheries biologist Shawn Young said in the release. "We aren't there yet, but we are bringing back the broken pieces of the ecosystem, and it's really benefiting burbot."
For now, the best time to fish for burbot is in February and March, when they move into shallow waters to spawn. Fishermen are allowed to catch up to six a day, with no size limits. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Idaho, Tribe Launch Plan To Reduce Northern Pike
The Coeur d'Alene Tribe and Idaho Department of Fish and Game plan to use gillnets in four lakes to remove northern pike from the southern end of Lake Coeur d'Alene and boost survival of cutthroat trout.
Fish managers plan to net the voracious predator fish in Lake Coeur d'Alene's tributary lakes--Benewah, Chatcolet, Round and Hidden Lakes--targeting places where the pike congregate to spawn, according to a news release from Idaho Fish and Game.
Northern pike are a non-native fish species that prey on other fish, including salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin that are listed under the Endangered Species Act. The Colville and Spokane tribes also remove northern pike from Lake Roosevelt, the reservoir behind Grand Coulee Dam, in an attempt to prevent them from spreading to other parts of the Columbia River.
In Lake Coeur d'Alene, fishery managers have been testing methods to suppress northern pike in Windy Bay since 2015, and found the fish can be reduced to low densities in a localized area to reduce impacts on other species, the news release said.
Managers are planning to minimize bycatch of other species--including largemouth bass, a popular fishery in the lake. Biologists plan to use gillnets this spring until May 24, and suspend fishing between Memorial Day and Oct. 1 to minimize conflict with recreational fishermen.
In 2017, the Tribe conducted a survey of Lake Coeur d'Alene fishermen, which showed strong support for suppressing northern pike in Windy Bay. Idaho Fish and Game also held a public meeting on March 26 to explain their efforts. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Idaho Governor Appoints Jeffery Allen To Northwest Power And Conservation Council
Idaho Gov. Brad Little on March 4 appointed Jeffery Allen to serve as one of the state's two members on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.
He replaces Bill Booth, who retired in December after 12 years.
Allen has been the Council's Idaho office director and policy analyst since 2008. He previously worked in the governor's Office of Species Conservation, where he advised the state on policies relating to the Endangered Species Act, and led the state's effort to delist gray wolves and establish a compensation fund for livestock killed by wolves. Before that, he was director of natural resources for U.S. Senator Mike Crapo.
"Jeff's deep knowledge of natural resources along with his extensive network of regional relationships make him an asset to Idaho on the Council," Little said in a statement. "I am confident Jeff will work well with our regional partners to protect and promote Idaho's interests and natural resource-based economies in his new role."
The Council is made up of two members each from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. The governor of each state appoints the members from their state to a three-year term, which can be extended. Allen joins Jim Yost as the other Idaho representative.
Council Chair Jennifer Anders will decide whether Allen will take over for Booth to serve on the Council's Fish and Wildlife Committee, and as chair of the Council's Public Affairs Committee.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has not yet announced a replacement for Council Member Tom Karier, who also retired from the Council in December and who has continued to attend meetings by phone until his replacement is found. -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
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