Idaho Congressman Surprises Crowd With Dam Removal Talk
The idea that an Idaho Republican might be ready to embrace removing the four lower Snake River dams drew a few hundred laughs at the 2019 Environmental Conference at Boise State University on April 23, after Gov. Brad Little proclaimed, "When it comes to salmon and steelhead, I want to state publicly right here this morning, I'm in favor of breaching, (pause), the status quo."
But by lunchtime, the possibility became very real, when Congressman Mike Simpson--a longtime Idaho Republican and ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development--revealed that he's been quietly delving into the idea by asking questions about resolving the problems that would arise if the dams were removed.
That wasn't the only surprise at the Andrus Center for Public Policy's annual conference, "Energy, Salmon, Agriculture, and Community: Can We Come Together?"
Simpson also suggested that the best way to create cost certainty for the Bonneville Power Administration is to rewrite the Northwest Power Act of 1980 and remove the financial obligations that no longer make sense.
Little, in his speech, announced the creation of a stakeholder group to develop Idaho-based solutions to salmon and steelhead recovery, through his Office of Species Conservation. "I think everyone agrees the current efforts aren't enough," he said of salmon and steelhead recovery. "We need predictable salmon and steelhead runs. We need predictable power and supply, and costs."
And Jaime Pinkham, director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, suggested that rather than focusing on removing dams, it would be more worthwhile to go for a "full court press" on other issues--such as hatcheries, habitat and ocean conditions. "It's going to be a tough political lift to get those dams breached," he said, noting that it took 15 years for Congress to pass a bill addressing problem sea lions.
With a goal of developing solutions to environmental issues, this year's conference focused on "two interconnected crises that can only be solved together--assuring our region's energy system emerges reliable and affordable from the technological and market changes roiling it; and reversing the continuing decline towards extinction of many Columbian Basin wild salmon and steelhead, especially those in the Snake River."
Panelists were leaders from the many sides of this story--BPA Administrator Elliot Mainzer, Northwest Energy Coalition Director Nancy Hirsh, Idaho Power Company CEO Darrel Anderson, Pacific Northwest Generating Co-Op CEO Roger Gray, Trout Unlimited President Chris Wood, Nez Perce Tribe Vice Chairman McCoy Oatman, Idaho Water Users Association Steve Howser, and Southern Resident Orca Task Force Co-Chair Stephanie Solien, to name a few.
And while dam removal was not the central theme of the conference, it became a major topic after Simpson's keynote address.
Simpson said that--while being a staunch BPA supporter--only about 6 percent of the power it produces comes to Idaho. Yet Idaho is paying for it by sending its water downriver and not getting the salmon or steelhead returns it once enjoyed. "I've come to the conclusion that I'm going to stay alive long enough to see healthy populations return," he said, adding, "I would love to see why they call Redfish Lake, Redfish Lake. I don't know if we can do it in my lifetime, but we need to do it for future generations."
He said for two years, he and his staff have been asking questions that are raising concerns and making people nervous. Those questions have focused on the benefits created by the dams--the power production, the farmland, the communities, and the transportation and barging industries--and how to ensure it all survives if the dams are removed.
"If dams were to come out, how would you address Lewiston?" he asked. "How would you address barges? How would you address Washington farmers who would have to lower intake valves to be able to farm? There are an awful lot of issues."
Simpson also said he's alarmed by the risks facing BPA and signs of instability when looking at its ability to borrow money; Congress' willingness to reauthorize its debt; and President Donald Trump's suggestion to do away with BPA's transmission system, along with his budget request to allow Bonneville to sell power at market rates, which are below its costs.
Simpson said hydroelectric dams have always provided the lowest-cost power, but that's no longer the case, which puts into question some of its obligations.
"BPA was seen as kind of the piggybank for every program in the Pacific Northwest," he said.
One of the programs that ratepayers fund is a residential exchange program designed to spread BPA benefits throughout the region. "If you got power from an IOU, your rates got reduced a few dollars each month. BPA paid for that," he said. But, he asked, if it's no longer the lowest-cost power, does that still make sense?
Bonneville also funds the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, efficiency programs, and weatherization. It makes payments to wind and solar generators when there's an oversupply of power, to Idaho farmers so that the hydropower system can use their water, and to Canada to control potential flooding in Portland.
Passed in 1980, the Northwest Power Act was designed for a different time, he said. "How do you create certainty of cost for BPA? I think it's time we re-look at the Northwest Power and Planning Act," he said. "Either we can do it, or it will be done for us. Someone else will write it and impose it on us."
Simpson suggested that the people in the room, and others in the Pacific Northwest, are best equipped to resolve the issues surrounding salmon and energy that have plagued the region for decades. "How do we restore a river? That's the real question," he said. "We need to stop thinking about what currently exists and ask ourselves, 'What do we want the Northwest to look like in 10, 20, 30, 40 years?'"
What that collaborative effort might look like was the central theme of four panel discussions--two on salmon and energy, and two on agriculture and communities.
At the beginning of the conference, John Freemuth, executive director of the Cecil D. Andrus Center for Public Policy, said the goal is to get people in the same room and see if their conversations during the panel discussions, in the halls and in private can resolve some of the issues. "We don't know if it will lead to anything, but that is our hope," he said. "Our goal, as always, is, can we move the ball forward?"
At the end of the conference, Ed Bowles, fish division administrator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, introduced BPA Administrator Elliot Mainzer for a closing speech. Noting that Oregon and Bonneville have been on opposite sides of the courtroom over federal BiOps for more than two decades, the irony of being asked to introduce Mainzer was not lost on him, he said.
However, he said, after working with Mainzer on the flexible spill agreement, he recognizes the power side of the equation is "very critical." When it comes to solving this issue, he said, looking backwards is not going to work. "We've got to be looking forward." He said BPA's responsibility for conservation can no longer be a "ball and chain," and that the agency's stewardship role must not only be valued, but also credited. "I think any comprehensive solution can and will come through Elliot," he said.
Mainzer closed the event by talking about the importance of working with Oregon, the Nez Perce Tribe and others to come up with a spill agreement that is a true compromise. Although Bonneville is still "a little skeptical on the science," he said, the agency decided to work with them to find a solution that would provide more spill without imposing additional rate impacts, and also preserving some flexibility in the system, which enables the integration of wind and solar.
"To me, irrespective of what happens over the long term with respect to flexible spill ... there is a kernel of collaboration and trust and coordination and willingness to work with each other ... something I really hope carries forward," he said.
The Center plans to produce transcripts of the event, and a white paper within 90 days. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Examination Of Dam Removal Expected To Start This Summer
The Washington State Legislature passed a $52.4 billion operating budget April 28 that includes $750,000 to fund a stakeholder process to look into benefits and impacts of removing or breaching the four lower Snake River dams.
Recommended by the Southern Resident Orca Task Force, the funds will be used to hire a neutral third party to establish a collaborative process to address questions related to removing the dams, including economic and social impacts and mitigation costs.
The funding came in a negotiated budget between the state Senate, which included the funds in its initial proposal, and the House, which did not.
Reaction to the allocation drew praise from environmental groups that have worked to restore salmon, and ire from those that could be devastated if the dams are torn out.
"We are extraordinarily grateful that the Legislature followed Governor Inslee's lead to begin urgently needed contingency planning if federal agencies decide dam removal is necessary to restore our salmon and orcas," Sam Mace, Inland Northwest program director for the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, said in a news release.
Meanwhile, the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association (CSRIA) said it views the process as "nothing less than pandering to a small, but vocal, Puget Sound pro-dam breaching crowd."
CSRIA board representative Darryll Olsen said in an email to Northwest Fishletter that his organization is publishing full-page ads in various publications questioning whether the stakeholder process will yield any truth--or whether it would even keep environmental groups from challenging the new environmental impact statement (EIS) unless dam breaching or deep reservoir drawdowns are endorsed.
"Some ponder whether the Governor will use the study to politically 'save the dams,' and Eastern Washington, by invoking climate friendly hydropower concerns. We doubt it," CSRIA's statement said.
The irrigators association, instead, continues to push for an ESA exemption process, which would exempt the Columbia Basin dams from Endangered Species Act requirements.
But Stephanie Solien, co-chair of the orca task force, told Northwest Fishletter that she hopes the process marks an end to the fighting, and a beginning to working together to reach a common goal. She said she sees the process as a cost-benefit analysis of the dams that can be used to help the governor and others decide how to comment on the EIS, when it's released.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and Bonneville Power Administration are currently preparing the EIS that will analyze the impacts of 14 federal projects--including Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite on the Snake River--and are expected to release a draft in February 2020.
Solien said while the recommendation to form a stakeholder group came from the task force, the Legislature gave the governor's office broad leeway in deciding how to proceed, and it's not bound by any portion of its recommendation.
She said the funds will be available on July 1, but the governor's office is expected to design the process and choose a third party to lead it soon after the budget is signed in the next couple of weeks. "It's hoped that the process will be in place by the beginning of July," she said. "The state is relying on this facilitated process to help inform the comments and positions they will take" when the federal agencies release the draft EIS, she added.
Solien said it's clear that southern residents rely on salmon from the Snake and Columbia rivers at crucial times, but also rely on other salmon runs throughout the region. "The orca task force decided not to take a position on breaching the dams because we felt it was critical that the voice of the communities impacted be heard."
She added, "We're going to be very interested in what breaching the dams would mean in terms of salmon returns, not just for the orcas but for the region as a whole," she said. "We're also very interested--and caring and concerned--about the people and livelihoods in the region. It's not just economic. Those dams have become part of their culture, and celebrations." Impacts to the public power grid must also be considered, she said.
Before a final budget was adopted, advocacy groups from both sides of the issue lobbied both for and against including the funds for a stakeholder group.
Before the decision, George Caan, executive director of the Washington PUD Association, said his association signed a letter with multiple economic development and utility groups in the Tri-Cities area opposing the $750,000 appropriation, and sent it to key Senate leaders. "There's no need to use important state funds that could be used for something that's actually needed," he said. "That process by federal agencies is an open public process, and is the appropriate venue for these issues to be raised."
He said he understands that there's a lot of passion around orca recovery, just as there's a lot of passion surrounding the multiple issues involved with tearing out Snake River dams. "From our point of view, the passion really needs to be directed to those things that are achievable and have direct nexus to orca recovery," he said.
Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, said his organization hasn't lobbied Washington lawmakers, but agrees that creating a forum is not the best use of money. "At the end of the day, we do know that the federal operators are now going through a very comprehensive EIS process for the Columbia River System Operations, and that is a multi-million dollar effort that is aimed at actually looking at the science and determining what the best efforts are for the salmon and for the environment," he said.
He said RiverPartners shares the concerns about the southern resident orcas, and just as it has always been very "pro-salmon," the group also wants to see orcas recover. But when it comes to their needs, both species could benefit more from retaining a carbon-free power source, he said. "Hydropower is a really important carbon-free resource for the region, and is actually doing a lot of good in trying to negate the effects of climate change," he said, adding, "We think that hydro is basically a longer-term answer to addressing some of these serious concerns."
Sean O'Leary, spokesman for the Northwest Energy Coalition, said the process should not be about whether or not the dams should be removed. "That is an issue that is being addressed right now by the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process," he said. "What we feel the need for is to understand what all of our options are, and that means understanding the implications."
He said his organization helps communities deal with significant changes--towns like Centralia, Wash., where the Coalition's executive director Nancy Hirsh became a member of TransAlta's Coal Transition Grants Economic & Community Development Board to help the community transition to a new economy without its coal-fired plant.
"We are not assuming that the dams are going to go away," he said. "But we do think it's a worthwhile exercise to understand what the needs are, and what the alternatives are for addressing those."
Solien said that, in addition to funding the stakeholder forum, the Washington Legislature fully embraced the task force's legislation, passing three major bills related to prey availability, vessel noise and water pollution, and funding $933 million of the governor's $1.07 billion budget request for orca recovery. "We saw significant increases in salmon habitat and restoration, and we also got funding for hatcheries," she said. The capital budget includes $435 million for habitat restoration, an important piece of salmon recovery, she said. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Indegenous Nations In Canada--But Not U.S.--Join Treaty Talks
Three indigenous nations in Canada will join the ongoing Columbia River Treaty negotiations between the U.S. and Canada as "official observers," Global Affairs Canada announced in an April 26 news release.
Representatives of the Ktunaxa, Okanagan and Secwepemc nations will not participate in talks, but can now hear firsthand the official negotiations between the two countries to modernize the treaty, signed in 1964 as a flood control and hydropower agreement.
"By working together, we will ensure that negotiations directly reflect the priorities of the Ktunaxa, Okanagan, and Secwepemc Nations--the people whose livelihoods depend on the Columbia River and who have resided on its banks for generations," Chrystia Freeland, Canada's minister of foreign affairs, said in a statement. "This is an historic day and demonstrates our government's commitment to work in full partnership with Indigenous Nations," it said.
U.S. tribes still have not been invited to join--either as participants or observers. In an email to NW Fishletter, a State Department spokesperson for Western Hemisphere Affairs said, "We have no plans to change the general composition of the team. We will continue to engage the Tribes regularly as negotiations proceed. We value the Tribes' expertise and experience and are consulting with the Tribes throughout the negotiating process."
American Indian tribes in the U.S. had asked to sit at the table and become an official part of the discussions. They were disappointed when officials denied that request in April 2018, a few months before negotiations to modernize the treaty began, Jim Heffernan, policy analyst for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, told NW Fishletter. They sought reconsideration by the State Department and that request was again denied, he said.
Heffernan said the U.S. tribes have a history of being part of negotiations with Canada, having sat at the table when the U.S. and Canada agreed in the Pacific Salmon Treaty to cooperate in managing salmon throughout the region. He said while the tribes were not included in the first Columbia River Treaty negotiations, the State Department's promise to include ecosystem-based function as part of this treaty should qualify them to participate.
Tribal leaders, he said, respect the Bonneville Power Administration's knowledge of energy operations, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' expertise in flood risk management. Since tribes were the leading force behind including a healthy ecosystem as a third and equal objective in the treaty, "The tribes felt they would be the appropriate experts on this issue, and should be a the table," he said.
Heffernan added that, while Canada's First Nations won't be part of the official negotiations, "They will have an opportunity to hear everything going on." And although the four treaty tribes in the U.S. believe their rightful place is on the negotiating team, he said, "They would still welcome the opportunity to also be eyes and ears in the room."
He said tribal representatives who regularly meet with the State Department have not yet met to discuss the recent change in status for Canada's First Nations.
In official statements, leaders of those First Nations say they are pleased by the development.
"Minister Freeland's decision to accept the Indigenous Nations' proposal for observer level participation in the negotiations with the U.S. is very significant," Kathryn Teneese, chair of the Ktunaxa Nation Council said in a statement. "We are taking small but meaningful steps together on the road to reconciliation."
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, chairman of the Okanagan Nation Alliance, added, "The original Columbia River Treaty in 1964 excluded our Nations, and wreaked decades of havoc on our communities in the basin. Canada's unprecedented decision to include us directly in the US-Canada CRT negotiations is courageous but overdue and necessary to overcome the decades of denial and disregard." -K.C. Mehaffey
 Oregon, Idaho Sign Deal On Hells Canyon Fish Passage
The governors of Oregon and Idaho have signed an agreement that both states are calling a "monumental step" in Idaho Power's efforts to relicense the Hells Canyon Complex.
The Departments of Environmental Quality from both states--which had solicited public comments on their draft water quality certifications for continued operation of the three dams--are now working to issue the Clean Water Act Section 401 water quality certifications required by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to relicense the three hydroelectric dams.
Oregon and Idaho had been at odds over whether to require fish passage at the dams as part of the water quality certification--a disagreement that was delaying the process. In the settlement, Oregon agreed not to require passage for spring Chinook and summer steelhead, for now, but will release and study adult hatchery fish in Pine Creek--which originates in Oregon and flows into Hells Canyon Reservoir--and revisit the question after 20 years. The study--to be managed by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and funded by Idaho Power--resolves the long-running dispute.
Brad Bowlin, a spokesman for Idaho Power, said the agreement is a significant step toward winning a new 50-year license for the Hells Canyon Complex, which the company now estimates could happen as soon as 2022. The utility started working toward relicensing in 1995, and its old license expired in 2005. In the meantime, the company has been receiving annual licenses to operate the Hells Canyon, Oxbow and Brownlee dams.
"There's still a long way to go in terms of the relicensing," Bowlin told NW Fishletter. "This was a really big hurdle to get over. It took a lot of negotiation, and frankly, we're really grateful both sides were able to come to the table and think outside the box," he said.
The announcement follows an initial agreement reached in December over Snake River water quality.
The agreement adds $20 million to Idaho Power's $312-million commitment to improve water quality and habitat, boost hatchery production, and monitor and study fish. Under the agreement, spring Chinook production at its Rapid River Hatchery will increase from 3.2 million to 4 million juveniles.
Bowlin said the relicensing costs will be spread out over 50 years and ultimately will be passed on to customers. But, he noted, "Before we can do any of that, the Public Utilities Commission has to determine those were prudent and in the best interest of customers."
At an environmental conference in Boise on April 23, Idaho Power CEO Darrell Anderson pointed to the agreement as a recent success at collaboration, calling it a "big milestone" under which anadromous fish will be reintroduced into Pine Creek above Hells Canyon Dam, and monitored during a pilot study before fish passage is reconsidered.
"This long-awaited agreement supplies clean, affordable energy for Idahoans, improves water quality, and provides additional fish for recreational and tribal ceremonial purposes," Idaho Gov. Brad Little said in a news release.
In a separate release, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown touted the promised improvements in water quality. "This agreement benefits the communities of eastern Oregon, since we know what's good for water, habitat, and fish is good for people," she said in a statement.
The water quality measures will also reduce sources of mercury and other pollutants.
Bowlin said Idaho Power will also be addressing water quality--including water temperature--along portions of the middle Snake River in two areas where the river is wide and shallow and most susceptible to warming. Efforts will be made to narrow and deepen the channel so it stays colder as it flows through, he said. The company will also work with landowners on riparian habitat, planting native plants along key tributaries and working to keep livestock out of streams where appropriate.
Bowlin said in addition to Pine Creek, habitat improvements will be made in the Owyhee and Malheur watersheds, and in Goose Creek and Eagle Creek. -K.C. Mehaffey
 EPA Lays Out Columbia-Snake Temperature Appeal Argument
The Environmental Protection Agency says the Clean Water Act does not require it to determine the causes of water temperature issues in the Snake and Columbia rivers, that Washington and Oregon have retained that duty, and that a U.S. District Court judge in Seattle erroneously transferred that task to the EPA.
Those are the main arguments made by U.S. Justice Department attorneys in its 71-page opening brief filed April 11 in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Columbia Riverkeeper et al. v. Scott Pruitt et al. The EPA is appealing an October ruling that gave the federal agency 60 days to issue Total Maximum Daily Loads, or TMDLs, for water temperature in the Columbia and lower Snake rivers.
Under the Clean Water Act, TMDLs identify sources of water pollutants--in this case, high temperatures--and take first steps toward developing a plan to reduce them.
The judge's order is stayed until the appeals court rules.
In its appeal, the EPA argues that under the act, states must first set water-quality standards for each water body within their borders, and then develop a list identifying and prioritizing the water bodies that fail to meet those standards. States then develop TMDLs for EPA approval. "A TMDL does not restrict pollution, but is a planning tool, allowing permitting authorities to see the big picture and take regulatory actions to achieve water quality goals," the appeal states.
Pollutants are considered either point sources--those coming from a specific source--or nonpoint sources--from all other sources such as atmospheric deposition of pollutants or temperature increases. Point sources are required to get a federal National Permit Discharge Elimination System permit, while nonpoint sources are not, according to the appeal.
"Notably here, when water impounded behind a dam increases in temperature as a result of the impoundment, EPA considers that increase to result from a nonpoint source. EPA and the States therefore do not regulate most warming of waters behind dams through the NPDES permit program," the appeal says.
It also says that the act does not establish a time by which states must submit TMDLs, nor does it require the EPA to act if states fail to submit them. After a state submits a TMDL, the EPA has 30 days to either approve or disapprove it. If it disapproves the state's TMDL, the EPA has another 30 days to establish the TMDL in its place. According to the Clean Water Act, the only time EPA has a duty to establish a TMDL is when a state submits one and EPA disapproves it, the appeal says.
When--decades after the Clean Water Act was enacted--some states had not developed any TMDLs, a "theory" arose that "if a state fails over a long period of time to submit proposed TMDLs, this prolonged failure may amount to the 'constructive submission' by that state of no TMDLS," under which the EPA could be expected to develop TMDLs for that state, the appeal says. But courts have held that a constructive submission occurs only when there's a complete failure to submit any TMDLs, the appeal says. "Where a state has begun to fulfill its obligation to submit TMDLs to EPA, the courts of appeals have refused to find a constructive submission that triggers EPA's nondiscretionary duty," it says.
Washington and Oregon have each developed a "robust" TMDL program, with 1,578 TMDLs in Washington and 1,241 in Oregon, it says. Both states also have EPA-approved temperature standards of 13 to 20 degrees Celsius--depending on the location--for the Columbia and lower Snake rivers. Since the mid-1990s, Oregon has included the entire length of the Columbia River on its list of impaired waters, and Washington has included 49 of 96 segments of the Snake and Columbia rivers on its list. "The two states consequently have a statutory obligation ... to submit TMDLs for those waters for EPA's approval, but they have not done so," the appeal states.
The EPA says that it entered into an agreement with Washington and Oregon to develop a temperature TMDL cooperatively with tribes, states and federal agencies, due to the complexity involved and the coordination necessary between states. However, it claims, after the agreement was signed, Washington and Oregon asked EPA to issue the TMDL, and "EPA ultimately acknowledged the States' request without either granting or rejecting it," the appeal says. The agency produced a preliminary draft TMDL in 2003, but there were disagreements about the causes of increased temperatures, which some said had not changed significantly from natural conditions. Also, most of the warming in the river comes from nonpoint sources, including dam reservoirs, rising air temperatures and the temperatures of incoming tributaries, the appeal says.
"The intent behind the Draft TMDL was to provide modeling that would help stakeholders tackle these issues. However, that modeling confirmed that addressing point sources through EPA's existing authorities would not significantly contribute to the attainment of water quality standards," it says. The agency suspended its work when several stakeholders disputed the modeling and the dams' contributions to elevated temperatures, and states' proposals to amend water quality standards were being challenged in court.
Last October, a District Court judge found that EPA's obligation does apply when a state abandons an individual TMDL, and that the agreement between EPA and Washington and Oregon provided "strong evidence" that the states abandoned their obligation to develop a TMDL. According to the court, that triggered EPA's nondiscretionary duty to approve or disapprove the TMDL within 30 days. "The court also stated that it 'does not see how the EPA can approve the constructively submitted TMDL,' and it ordered EPA to issue a new TMDL within 30 days of any disapproval," the appeal says. EPA sought an extension, which was denied, but is continuing to work on the TMDL during the appeal, it says.
The plaintiffs--Columbia Riverkeeper, Idaho Rivers United, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, Snake River Waterkeeper, Inc., and The Institute for Fisheries Resources--have until May 10 to respond to the opening brief. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Flexible Spill: No Surcharge, But Plenty Of Discussion
A week after flexible spill operations began on four Columbia River dams, the Bonneville Power Administration held a workshop to explain how it plans to avoid passing the spill costs on to ratepayers, while hydroelectric dam operators discussed the quirks of a spill program that's never been tried before.
Under an agreement involving BPA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, the states of Oregon and Washington, and the Nez Perce Tribe, eight federal dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers are now spilling water at 120 percent total dissolved gas (TDG) levels for 16 hours each day to aid downstream juvenile fish migration, and reducing spill for eight hours each day to help BPA when power costs are higher. Those operations will continue through mid-June, when summer spill begins.
Dam operators already knew that increasing TDG levels at one dam influences dissolved gas levels at the next dam downstream. But after a week of attempting to keep gas levels at all four Columbia River dams at--and not above or below--120 percent for 16 hours a day, Dan Turner, the Corps' Northwest Division water quality team lead for the Columbia River, was already calling The Dalles his "problem child."
"We had an interesting first week," Turner told members of the Columbia River Technical Management Team (TMT) on April 17--a full week after flexible spill began April 10 at McNary, John Day, The Dalles and Bonneville dams.
Operators started off the spring spill season with flows that were too high for flexible spill hours to apply. Operating at maximum generation, TDG levels were already at--and in some cases above--120 percent. At Bonneville Dam, total flow peaked at 392.4 kcfs on the night of April 10 before flows began to recede.
With reduced flows, operators began to adjust spill levels to 120 percent TDG. At The Dalles, the spill adjustments ranged from 140 to 153 kcfs, which resulted in differing and inconsistent TDG levels, Turner said.
He explained that part of the difficulty at The Dalles stems from a TDG gauge that is located almost three miles downstream from the dam, which leaves a two-hour lag in information. So when operators make a change to influence the TDG, they don't know the impact for a couple of hours. In addition, increasing TDG at John Day Dam upstream has a significant influence on TDG levels at The Dalles, sometimes pushing it above the 120-percent limit.
According to data posted on the TMT website, TDG levels at The Dalles exceeded the daily criteria from April 13 through April 17, rising each day to 123 or 124 percent for more than six hours. Detailed information on spill and TDG levels is available on the TMT homepage.
Asking for input from the team, Turner noted that by keeping TDG at 120 percent in John Day's tailwater, operators at The Dalles might have to cut spill significantly--potentially to zero--to keep tailwater at The Dalles below 120 percent TDG. He suggested a more balanced approach would be to lower TDG at John Day to enable continuing spill at The Dalles.
Paul Wagner, TMT member representing NOAA Fisheries, suggested spilling 40 percent of the flow at The Dalles, and allowing a lower spill at John Day.
Operators planned to continue discussing the spill levels with salmon managers, and will revisit the issue at the next TMT meeting on April 24.
Turner also reported that the four Snake River dams--Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor--where flexible spill has been in operation since April 3--are operating well after initial adjustments. "Yesterday, we got 120 percent for the four projects; we didn't change anything," he said, adding that dam operators continue to make very small changes to maintain the 120 percent TDG levels.
BPA, in an email to NW Fishletter, said from its perspective, implementing the flexible spill operation has gone well so far. "We have been able to implement flex spill in the fashion we anticipated in our planning activities. While there are always unique conditions and operational realities that do not appear in a modeled scenario, our initial impression is that the overall spill operation and the flex spill component are behaving as expected," the agency's statement said.
Bonneville is also proposing to forego any spill surcharges to customers this year, and instead plans to charge the Fish and Wildlife Program $34 million for the additional costs from spilling water over the eight dams. Last year, customers were charged an additional $10.2 million for the costs of spring spill, and the Fish and Wildlife Program was charged $20 million.
On April 18, Bonneville hosted a workshop to explain preliminary plans for its 2019 spill surcharge. Daniel Fisher, BPA's power rates manager, explained that when 2018 and 2019 rates were set, Bonneville was facing a spring spill injunction but was not sure what the consequences would be. The spill surcharge tries to mimic what rates would have been if BPA had known what the spill was going to be, he said.
In 2018, the surcharge was based on the court-ordered requirement to spill to gas caps, for a total cost of $38.6 million. This year, the surcharge is based on the flexible spill operation, for a total cost of $34.9 million. Those are not actual costs, but are based on the average amount of lost generation under those spill scenarios over 80 historical water years, multiplied by the rate case forecast for the price of electricity at Mid-Columbia projects.
Adjustments that reduced the surcharge to zero this year include a cost reduction permitted at the BPA Administrator's discretion, which is proposed at $34 million charged to the Fish and Wildlife Program. The surcharge amount also reflects a credit that will not be received due to Fish and Wildlife Program reductions, a formula adjustment to account for the portion of electricity going to non-Slice customers, and the impact that more spill has on market prices for remaining power sales.
BPA operations research analyst Milli Chennel said the new flexible spill criteria will result in a 223-aMW decrease in generation, which is "a little less of a decrease than we saw in fiscal year 2018," which resulted in a 253-aMW decrease. Both figures are based on the average hydropower generation from 80 historical water years.
She noted that there were no changes in summer spill last year, although the flexible spill agreement could also affect spill this summer, and is reflected in this year's costs.
 Some BPA Transmission Corridors Double As Wildlife Refuge
Compared with the surrounding countryside, transmission line corridors may seem like unimportant pieces of the larger landscape. But with 15,000 miles of corridor to maintain through ecosystems that range from deserts to wetlands, the Bonneville Power Administration puts a lot of thought and expertise into the effort.
In Washington's Thurston and Skagit counties, Bonneville is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect important habitat for the threatened Oregon spotted frog. In Portland's Forest Park, the agency is partnering with the city and Friends of Forest Park to replant native and pollinator species in the transmission line rights-of-way. As its pollinator program gets underway, other corridors will also be evaluated for replanting with native plants that attract these important birds, bees and butterflies.
The land beneath high-voltage power lines may seem like an unlikely place to try to protect the environment. But with encroaching development, agriculture, invasive species and other competing forces, these corridors can become an important refuge for wildlife.
Take, for example, the Oregon spotted frog. Listed as threatened in 2014 under the Endangered Species Act, the frog is considered the most aquatic native frog in the Pacific Northwest, according to USFWS. The frogs are almost always found in or near a perennial body of water that includes some shallow water with abundant floating aquatic plants. They're currently found in five Washington and five Oregon counties.
Part of the frog's known habitat in Washington includes portions of a 40-mile transmission line corridor near Olympia, and another 20-mile right-of-way from Monroe to Bellingham, with an area along the Samish River.
Jonnel Deacon and Oden Jahn, who work in BPA's pollution prevention and abatement group, said power lines that go through the spotted frog's habitat must comply with National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act requirements. In an interview with NW Fishletter, they explained how Bonneville has been working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure their plans to maintain those areas are compatible with the frogs' needs.
"Part of Bonneville's sustainability approach is integrated vegetation management, where we have been trying to transition our rights-of-way from taller vegetation to more low-growing plants, so we can reduce maintenance from every year to every three years," Deacon said. "It saves ratepayers money by not having to go in every year. And it increases system reliability," he said.
Jahn said that since the Oregon spotted frogs prefer low-growing plants, protecting their habitat is very compatible with BPA's sustainability efforts. In some areas, human development is encroaching on the frogs' habitat. But the large protected areas below power lines will not be developed, and offer a corridor where wildlife can travel unimpeded. Jahn said that in working to protect the frog, a new site where the frogs are living was documented that was previously unknown to the USFWS.
Maintaining these areas without disturbing the frogs requires planning and forethought--and approval from USFWS. Methods being used to maintain these areas include hand mowing and cutting non-native vegetation, and limiting the use of herbicides and spot-treating areas when needed. Workers who maintain these areas are also careful to disinfect their boots and equipment before entering a new wetland to prevent the spread of bacteria and fungi that are harmful to the frogs.
In other rights-of-way, Bonneville has been planting native and low-growing flowering plants to provide important habitat for pollinators.
Nancy Wittpenn, an environmental protection specialist at Bonneville, said while safety continues to be BPA's top priority when maintaining these areas, these rights-of-way are increasingly being evaluated for how they can contribute to the surrounding environment.
About 18 months ago, BPA became one of the founding members of an initiative to promote pollinators through the Electric Power Research Institute. Called the Power-in-Pollinators Initiative, the collaborative effort found ways that electric utilities managing large tracts of land can cost-effectively enhance habitat for pollinators.
"Our pollinators are declining at alarming rates," Wittpenn told NW Fishletter. Through the pollinator initiative, BPA's vegetation management crews are now working to find mutual benefits--to the environment and to customers--for maintaining these lands, she said.
"When you cut large and tall-growing trees and manage those rights of way for the low-growing vegetation, that can create habitat for species that weren't there before," she said. Putting in nectar-producing plants can provide an important benefit to pollinating birds, bees and butterflies.
The transmission lines also serve as a highway for pollinating species, she said. Part of the problem facing these species is the fragmentation of their habitat. "They used to be able to fly unimpeded, but now, with so much development and pesticide use, it could be hard for them to find the nectar they need to get through the entire season."
Reseeding areas with pollinator-rich species is just one example of how Bonneville is influencing the way its rights-of-way are maintained, Wittpenn noted. Depending on the location, the agency may also look for plants with low water or low maintenance needs, often using native plants that will do well in the environment and prevent weeds from establishing.
According to its 2018 sustainability report, BPA in 2014 became the first power marketing administration to be accredited by the Right-of-Way Stewardship Council, which promotes sustainable vegetation management practices without excessive use of pesticides. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Oregon F&W Says Sea Lion Removal Has Boosted Willamette Steelhead
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife says the Willamette River is having its best wild winter steelhead return in three years, thanks in part to the lethal removal of California sea lions.
So far this year, more than 2,700 steelhead have passed Willamette Falls, and the season isn't over yet. The agency projects that about 3,200 winter steelhead will make it over the falls by the end of May, when their spawning migration typically ends. That's nearly double last year's return of 1,829 fish and almost four times as many as the record low return of 822 fish in 2017. State officials determined that wild steelhead had a 90 percent chance of going extinct without intervention.
California sea lions--which congregate at the base of the falls to pick off steelhead through late winter and Chinook through the spring--were consuming an estimated 25 percent of the steelhead return and 9 percent of the Chinook, Oregon biologists found.
Last November, the National Marine Fisheries Service gave Oregon authorization to trap and kill California sea lions at the falls, and since mid-December, the agency has euthanized 13 of the wandering males. Authorization came after efforts to relocate or scare them away were unsuccessful.
Many of the euthanized sea lions had been coming to the falls for years, and some had been hanging around since last August. By March 13--after 11 sea lions were trapped and killed--there were no sea lions on the lower river for six days, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said in a news release. The timing corresponded with a warm spell, and hundreds of steelhead made their way through the lower river and over the falls without encountering a sea lion.
But the battle to protect Willamette River steelhead, and now spring Chinook, is far from over.
"We typically see an increase in sea lion abundance at the Falls in April as additional animals move in to feed on the more abundant spring Chinook," Shaun Clements, ODFW's senior policy analyst, said in the release.
Biologists say it will take at least two or three years to fully manage sea lion predation at Willamette Falls, but without these males returning home with reports of a successful hunt, officials believe the problem should taper off. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Washington Modifies Dissolved Gas Standard For Flexible Spill
Washington's Department of Ecology issued a short-term modification of the state's total dissolved gas (TDG) standards at eight dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers on March 29, enabling the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin flexible spill operations April 3.
The decision increases TDG limits from 115 percent to 120 percent at forebays and maintains a 120 percent TDG at tailraces of four lower Snake River and four lower Columbia River dams.
The limits had been restricted to 115 percent in forebays of these dams--a standard that remains in the lower Snake and Columbia rivers when spring spill is not in effect. High levels of supersaturated gas can injure or kill fish and other aquatic life, and is limited to 110 percent in most other rivers of the state.
An April 2 news release from the Corps says the flexible spill operations will help the region learn whether higher spill improves juvenile salmon and steelhead survival, and whether it improves adult returns in years to come.
"We will use our expertise and best professional judgment to implement this operation," Tim Dykstra, senior fish program manager for the Corps, said in the release. "And since this operation involves spilling much more water at our dams for juvenile fish passage than in previous years, we will monitor the river system closely and adjust as necessary if we see any unintended consequences from the higher spill."
The agency expects to post much of the technical information at its Columbia River Technical Management Team website, with discussions likely during weekly TMT meetings.
The modified criteria increasing TDG to 120 percent applies only to Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor dams from April 3 through June 20; and McNary, John Day, The Dalles and Bonneville dams from April 10 through June 15. It is in effect in 2019, 2020 and 2021 unless a change in the state's administrative rules supersedes the decision.
A final environmental impact statement (EIS) issued with the decision says that a separate process will begin this summer to address potential rule changes to accommodate a 125 percent TDG limit outlined in the flexible spill agreement for the spring of 2020 and 2021.
According to the EIS, the objectives of issuing the short-term modification is to meet the goals of the flexible spill agreement, to potentially increase smolt-to-adult returns for salmon and steelhead, and to develop a consistent standard with the state of Oregon.
In its EIS, Ecology acknowledges that little is known about actual TDG exposures of aquatic organisms while navigating through river systems; that both laboratory and field studies are limited; and many uncertainties remain.
When considering the potential positive impacts from increased spill, the EIS points to two models. One is the Comparative Survival Study (CSS), a joint project of the Fish Passage Center, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and wildlife departments in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Updated annually, the model predicts steady improvements in juvenile survival and adult returns as spill increases to at least 125 percent TDG.
The second study is NOAA Fisheries' Comprehensive Passage (COMPASS) model, which is "less optimistic" about the benefits of additional spill, the EIS notes. The CSS model predicts better juvenile survival "largely because of the assumption of latent or delayed mortality due to powerhouse (i.e., non-spillway) passage routes and different conclusions about the relative benefit of fish transportation as an alternative to spill," it says.
The Independent Scientific Advisory Board reviewed both models, but did not directly compare them, the EIS said. "ISAB seems to find value in both the CSS and COMPASS models, and has generally acknowledged that proponents of each model and of different spill tests have merit," it said.
In terms of potential negative impacts from the increased TDG levels, the EIS says most spawning is unlikely to be affected since there are only a few suitable spawning areas in the main-stem rivers, where TDG levels will be increased.
It reviewed studies examining impacts to juvenile and adult salmonids, and to resident fish, and concluded that several uncertainties remain. Several studies demonstrated that water depth helps compensate for the harmful impacts from high TDG levels, but it's unknown whether fish can detect supersaturated water and purposely seek out deeper waters. In addition, several studies suggest that gas bubble trauma--the main impact observed in monitoring efforts--may not accurately depict the health problems of aquatic life exposed to high TDG levels.
The EIS notes that the entire run of spring Chinook adult salmon and much of the sockeye run are likely to experience the daily elevated levels of TDG. In addition, the vast majority of juvenile salmon and steelhead migration corresponds with the spring spill.
It concludes that increasing TDG levels to 120 percent may increase the duration of exposure that fish have to higher TDG levels, but will not necessarily change the maximum allowable TDG level.
"Given that dam and salmon managers have not previously provided voluntary (fish passage) spill to 120 percent due to the potential for higher TDG levels to increase symptoms of gas bubble trauma in juvenile salmon, steelhead, and non-listed aquatic species; monitoring for gas bubble trauma will continue to be required," it said.
The smolt monitoring program has collected data on juvenile fish conditions and gas bubble trauma in the Columbia Basin since 1995, the EIS says. When more than 15 percent of the juvenile fish show any signs of gas bubble trauma, or more than five percent show severe signs, spill is reduced. "Spill may be curtailed, if possible, when one or both of these action criteria are met," it says.
While approving increased spill to 120 percent TDG, the decision notes that continuing to increase spill may eventually lead to diminishing benefits.
Studies demonstrate that the effects of TDG and the incidence of gas bubble trauma in aquatic life are greater at 125 percent compared with 120 percent, the EIS said. Spilling to 125 percent TDG relies heavily on the ability of aquatic organisms to depth compensate to minimize TDG effects.
When evaluating risk to aquatic life at 125 percent TDG, further research that addresses the uncertainties of the science will help to determine if the potential benefits of spill at 125 percent TDG outweigh the adverse effects of TDG to salmonids and resident aquatic life." -K.C. Mehaffey
 NOAA Fisheries Finds Jeopardy Unlikely From Operating Federal Dams
A new biological opinion (BiOp) for the Columbia River System concludes that the operation and maintenance of 14 federal dams are unlikely to jeopardize the existence of eight salmon runs and five listed steelhead runs listed as threatened or endangered in the Columbia Basin.
Released by NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) on March 29, the BiOp also concludes that operating the dams is not likely to adversely affect southern resident killer whales, or a distinct population of green sturgeon.
Operations are also not likely to destroy or adversely modify the critical habitat of any of those species, the document finds.
The new BiOp covers operations at four lower Snake River and four lower Columbia River dams under a new flexible spill schedule developed in an agreement between the three federal action agencies, the states of Oregon and Washington, and the Nez Perce Tribe.
The agreement provides higher spill--at 120 percent total dissolved gas (TDG) at all eight dams this year--to aid juvenile fish passage for 16 hours each day, and allows more water for power generation during the 8 peak hours when electricity prices are highest each day.
"We're happy that our consultation with NOAA was successful and that we have a new Biological Opinion to guide our system operations," Bonneville Power Administration spokesman David Wilson said in an email. "The hydro operations addressed in this new BiOp are largely the same as analyzed in the previous Biological Opinion, except for the new Flexible Spill Operation which has a goal of benefiting salmon and steelhead while providing additional power generation opportunities for BPA."
The BiOp covers the continued operation and maintenance of dams in the Columbia River System (CRS)--called the Federal Columbia River Power System in previous BiOps--along with tributary and estuary habitat mitigation, conservation and safety net hatchery programs, predator management, and research, monitoring and evaluation efforts.
The document notes that the actions covered by the BiOp are of "limited duration" because the action agencies--BPA, the Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers--are developing an environmental impact statement (EIS) to assess long-term system operations, maintenance and configurations, and are under court order to complete the EIS records of decision by Sept. 24, 2021. A new federally mandated schedule speeds up the EIS process, with records of decision now scheduled for Sept. 30, 2020.
NOAA Fisheries spokesman Michael Milstein told NW Fishletter that this interim BiOp is necessary to cover any incidental take of listed species caused by the dams and other operations. It includes five "reasonable and prudent measures" to minimize the impact of the amount or extent of incidental take.
These include specific operational measures for both juveniles and adults; implementation of specific habitat improvement actions; a continuation of Caspian tern management on East Sand Island to reduce smolt predation; and the monitoring and reporting the level of take from hydrosystem, hatchery and habitat actions.
Milstein also acknowledged that the new BiOp is "more of a back-to-basics approach" compared to prior BiOps that were deemed inadequate by federal courts.
In the BiOp's introduction, NMFS offered a brief history of the litigation leading up to this BiOp, including a 2016 ruling in U.S. District Court that invalidated its 2008/2014 BiOp in National Marine Fisheries Service et al. v. National Marine Fisheries Service et al.
In prior biological opinions, the agency wrote, the agency intended to adopt standards that provided "ample assurances" that the Endangered Species Act's jeopardy provisions were not violated. Howe
"The courts thus overturned standards and analyses we developed specifically for the CRS. Rather than continue on this path of developing CRS-specific standards, we return to our usual practice applied in most (if not all) ESA consultations," the introduction says.
The new BiOp uses statutory language and the agency's "long-standing interpretations" to determine whether the action is likely to jeopardize continued existence of the listed species. The Endangered Species Act "does not require an improvement to a species status, growth rates, or other metrics to demonstrate compliance," it says. It "only requires agencies to insure that their actions are not likely to jeopardize 'the continued existence' of listed species."
The BiOp also provides details for the flexible spill levels this year--when the eight dams will operate to 120 percent of total dissolved gas in tailraces for at least 16 hours every day, and in 2020, when most of the dams will operate to 125 percent of total dissolved gas in tailraces for 16 hours every day if Washington and Oregon change their water quality standards to enable the change.
"This increase in spill cap will result in higher spill levels for 16 hours per day at most dams, however, The Dalles Dam will spill less at 40 percent and John Day Dam will spill either 32 percent or maintain up to 120 percent TDG flexible spill. The reductions in spill at these two projects are intended to meet the power benefit objective of the Flexible Spill Operation Agreement. Spill caps will be limited during low and moderate flows by powerhouse minimum generation requirements at some projects," the BiOp states.
Flexible spill operations in both years are subject to change through adaptive management processes in case any unintended consequences arise, it says. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Corps Announces Plan to Develop New EIS for Willamette Projects
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is developing a new environmental impact statement (EIS) to ensure operations at all 13 Corps' dams and reservoirs in the Willamette Valley meet Endangered Species Act requirements.
The notice of intent to prepare an EIS, published April 1 in the Federal Registrar, marks the start of a scoping period during which comments on what should be addressed in the EIS can be submitted by June 28.
The agency also expects to host numerous public meetings before developing and releasing a draft EIS in the fall or winter of 2020.
Of the 13 dams, nine generate electricity with a total capacity of just over 400 MW.
The last EIS for the Willamette Valley projects was completed in 1980, but major changes since then--including the threatened status of upper Willamette River spring Chinook and winter steelhead--prompted the Corps to redo the process.
The announcement came the same week that federal attorneys argued against a court-ordered preliminary injunction--requested by three environmental groups--to change operations at some of the Corps' projects to help the Endangered Species Act-listed fish. U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez heard oral arguments on April 4 in Northwest Environmental Defense Center et al., v U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, et al., and is expected to issue a written decision.
In an email response to NW Fishletter, Corps spokeswoman Sarah Bennett said her agency's decision to prepare a new EIS is separate from its earlier decision to reinitiate consultations with the National Marine Fisheries Service for a new biological opinion--initially sought by the lawsuit.
Knowledge and conditions have "changed significantly since the last overall environmental analysis of the system was completed almost 40 years ago," she wrote. "Laws, regulations and operating considerations and constraints have changed greatly over the last 40 years. During that time, we have conducted project-specific NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) analyses, and we have determined that it is time to take another look at the system as a whole," she added.
The Corps will now combine the two processes: consultation for a new BiOp, which it had already agreed to do, and development of a new EIS, she wrote. The new EIS will not affect projects already underway, such as downstream passage facilities at Cougar and Detroit dams, Bennett said. "These projects are currently under independent NEPA review processes that we expect to complete before we issue the draft system-wide EIS," she wrote.
Jennifer Fairbrother, campaign and Columbia regional director of Native Fish Society--one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit--said no one was expecting the Corps's decision to completely redo the EIS. "We are cautiously encouraged that they are making this a public process, and we look forward to engaging on all these fronts," she told NW Fishletter.
The groups realize the process to develop a new EIS and then a new BiOp will take time--five years at least, she said. They are still asking a federal judge to order immediate operational changes, including drawdowns and spill, to ensure upper Willamette River Chinook and steelhead can survive in the interim.
In addition to asking for operational changes, she said, the groups want to resolve the issue of priorities--specifically whether the Corps has the authority to prioritize hydroelectric operations above fish recovery. "The thing that we feel is important from a standpoint of recovery is that the Army Corps take a hard look at the assumptions they are using to constrain the operation of the system," she said. "They've tried for decades to fulfill all of these purposes, and the result has been the decline of these species." The groups would like to see the Corps change or even eliminate hydro-production operations at some of the dams to ensure that the needs of fish are met.
Bennett, in her email, wrote that the Corps has different authorities at each of the dams, with purposes that include flood risk management, hydropower, irrigation, municipal and industrial water supply, water quality, recreation, fish and wildlife, and navigation.
"Our 13 inter-related dams and reservoirs in the Willamette Basin are a complex system that balances the priorities of the region," she wrote. Flood risk management and human life and safety are given primary consideration. Outside of flood season, the agency stores and releases water in accordance with a specific water control diagram, known as a rule curve.
Since the dams were built, they have prevented more than $25 billion in flood damages to the Willamette Valley, where--including Portland--about 70 percent of Oregon's population lives, the agency says. But the dams also block a substantial amount of Chinook and steelhead spawning habitat, and the many modifications and changes at individual dams have yet to resolve fish passage problems.
"This is an opportunity to have a conversation with the public and other resource agencies about the benefits and trade-offs of different approaches to operating and maintaining the system to meet multiple purposes and Endangered Species Act requirements," Mike Turaski, the Corps' Willamette Valley Systems Operations EIS project manager said in a news release. "Professionally, it's an interesting challenge and one that doesn't come along too often, to evaluate a system that is so complex and important to the public."
Written comments to help determine the scope of the EIS can be sent to: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Portland District, P.O. Box 2946, Attn: CENWP-PME-E, Portland, OR 97208-2946, or by email to email@example.com. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Klickitat Hatchery Reform Aims To Help Wild Chinook
The Northwest Power and Conservation Council approved a proposal by the Yakama Nation April 10 to convert a segregated spring Chinook hatchery program in the Klickitat River to an integrated one.
Instead of raising hatchery Chinook to manage separately from a wild run of spring Chinook in the Klickitat River, the tribe will begin to integrate broodstock from the wild run into its hatchery program, and eventually stop producing the hatchery stock with no wild origins.
Chris Frederiksen, research scientist with the Yakama Nation, told the Council that objectives of the hatchery reform effort will be to continue to provide both tribal and nontribal fishing opportunities while increasing viability of the natural spring Chinook run that spawn in the Klickitat River.
Frederiksen said that wild runs are currently depressed--between 179 and 685 adults have returned to the river to spawn each year for the last 12 years. Biologists have counted between 50 and 231 Chinook redds where eggs are laid in the Klickitat River in those years, he said.
"These low numbers are fairly concerning. If you look at the viability standards for a population, it's well below that," Frederiksen told the Council. While the Klickitat River spring Chinook are not listed under the Endangered Species Act, they are a species of concern, he said.
Funded by federal agencies, the Klickitat Hatchery was built in 1954 under the Mitchell Act as mitigation for hydropower operations, and is managed by the Yakama Nation and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Frederiksen said over the years, very few, if any, wild Chinook broodstock from the Klickitat River were used to create the hatchery stock, which includes about 600,000 smolts that are raised and released every year. Returns of these hatchery Chinook have fluctuated considerably over the last 14 years, ranging from 1,137 to 5,959 fish, he said.
But hatchery managers have no method of preventing hatchery fish from spawning with wild fish, and have determined that about 38 percent of them escape to spawn in the wild, Frederiksen said. That mixing of stocks has been shown to reduce the fitness of wild fish, and could be contributing to some of the lower returns, he added.
With the Council's approval, the tribe now plans to capture as many as 68 wild Chinook each year at a newly constructed facility at Lyle Falls and use them as broodstock, with a goal of releasing 100,000 smolts from the hatchery for the first 10 years of the program. In order to ensure enough wild fish continue to spawn in the wild, hatchery managers will not capture more than 25 percent of the wild Chinook to use in their hatchery program, he added.
The hatchery will also continue to use about 240 hatchery Chinook to produce and release 350,000 hatchery smolts annually.
After the first five years, the hatchery stock will be discontinued, and will no longer be used to produce smolts. Instead, managers will begin using only the wild fish that were raised in the hatchery as broodstock, along with the wild stock, to release between 400,000 and 450,000 smolts for the next five years.
Ultimately, by 2035, the tribe hopes to have a robust program of new hatchery-born fish that originated from wild stock, and continue to integrate wild fish as broodstock to release some 800,000 smolts annually.
Another key part of the proposal is to recolonize the upper watershed above Castile Falls, which was historically a very productive area for spring Chinook, Frederiksen said.
And, the reform effort will include major upgrades to the Klickitat Hatchery, which has not been renovated since it was built. Key construction projects include upgrading a spring water intake and water transmission pipeline, building new circular rearing tanks with a river-water supply, rebuild a ladder trap, adult holding chambers and a spawning building, and reconfiguring a pollution abatement system.
The Bonneville Power Administration is proposing to fund those upgrades, with some funds committed under the Columbia Basin Fish Accords.
An environmental review is underway. The project was reviewed by the Independent Scientific Review Panel, and the Council determined that conditions in that review have been met. It will be briefed on the hatchery's final design and costs before construction begins. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Contract Awarded For Initial Work On Klamath Dam Removal
The Klamath River Renewal Corporation awarded an $18.1-million contract April 24 for preliminary services to remove four Klamath River dams.
The nonprofit organization--formed to take ownership of four PacifiCorp dams and remove them--entered into a dam removal design-build contract with Kiewit Infrastructure West of Fairfield, Calif., according to a news release from KRRC. A further award to Kiewit to remove the dams is expected to follow once the design is finalized, it said.
"This contract will help demonstrate KRRC's capacity to undertake the project consistent with a license transfer application pending before [FERC]," KRRC's CEO Mark Bransom said in the release.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has yet to approve a transfer of the dam licenses from PacifiCorp, or a plan to remove the dams, which include J.C. Boyle, Copco No. 1, Copco No. 2 and Iron Gate. Earlier this month, KRRC requested a three-month extension for submitting responses to questions posed by an independent board of consultants on the company's plan, and FERC approved that request April 18.
According to KRRC, Kiewit has extensive experience in major construction projects, including an emergency reconstruction of the Oroville Dam spillways involving removal and repair of both the main flood control and emergency spillways in less than 18 months, as well as debris and sediment removal and development of access roads.
Other relevant projects that Kiewit has completed include the Folsom Dam spillway construction, East Toba and Montrose Hydroelectric design-build, and the Kwalsa and Upper Stave Hydroelectric design-build.
Under the agreement, Kiewit will use a progressive design-build method, assuming responsibility for the design and execution of dam removal and river restoration, the news release said. Preliminary services include design, planning, permitting support, native seed bank development and preparation for a later drawdown of reservoirs, it said.
The implementation phase of the contract is contingent on FERC approval and other regulatory permits.
"Kiewit has every technical skill in the world to get the job done, but beyond that, they just feel like the right fit," Bransom said in a statement. "Kiewit also comes to the project with relevant experience, including with the states of California and Oregon, as well as PacifiCorp (a Berkshire Hathaway Energy company), through successfully completed construction projects as well as other business relationships." -K.C. Mehaffey
 Columbia Closes To Chinook, Sockeye Fishing This Summer
The Columbia River will be closed through the summer to sockeye and summer Chinook fishing, including jacks, but there will be more opportunities to fish for coho when they return in the fall.
Developed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and tribal co-managers, 2019 salmon fishing seasons throughout Washington state were finalized on April 16 during a Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting.
The Columbia isn't the only place where forecasts for Chinook returns have resulted in fishing closures. Puget Sound Chinook returns are also expected to be low in the Stillaguamish, Nooksack and mid-Hood Canal areas; and notable closures include the San Juan Islands in August, Deception Pass and Port Gardner in December and January, and Admiralty Inlet in January. Both commercial and recreational fishing will also be closed on the Fraser River through most of the summer, according to an article in the Vancouver Sun.
Kyle Adicks, WDFW's salmon policy lead, told NW Fishletter that Chinook runs have been poor--and fishing seasons scaled back--for the past three years, likely due to continuing impacts of the Blob of warm water in the Pacific Ocean. There have been other poor years and fishing closures dating back to the 1970s, he said, although things appeared to turn around in the early 2000s.
In a news release, WDFW Director Kelly Susewind acknowledged that the reductions in salmon fishing are difficult for fishermen and local communities. But the agency also noted that limiting fisheries to meet conservation objectives will indirectly benefit southern resident killer whales by minimizing boat presence and noise and decreasing competition for Chinook--their favorite prey.
Portions of the Columbia River will open in the fall, under various regulations, beginning Aug. 1. Steelhead fishing seasons in the Columbia and Snake rivers will be similar to those in 2017, when similarly low runs were projected.
Changes in this year's fishing season will be detailed in the 2019-2020 Washington Sport Fishing Rules pamphlet, published in June. Highlights of changes are available in an agency summary.
Adicks said all signs are pointing to a good return of coho to the Columbia River this year. "We'll still have rules in place to try to protect as many of the summer Chinook as we can, and rolling block closures up the river for steelhead. But the coho should be pretty good," he said. -K.C. Mehaffey
 PacifiCorps Plans Major Restoration Work In Lewis River
After spending the last 10 years developing fish passage facilities to allow adult and juvenile salmon and steelhead to bypass its three dams on the Lewis River, PacifiCorp is planning to spend the next 10 restoring habitat where returning fish can spawn and their juveniles can thrive.
The National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a preliminary decision on Aug. 12 under which PacifiCorp would spend more than $20 million in the next decade on projects to create and improve spawning beds, protect or improve riparian areas that are important sources of food and shade, and create refuge where juvenile fish can grow.
Much of the work is expected to occur upstream from PacifiCorp's Swift Dam No. 1, where fish passage work has opened more than 100 miles of habitat that had been blocked since the dams were built. Some of the habitat work could also occur below Merwin Dam--the lowest of the three--or in the lower Columbia River where the Lewis River flows, PacifiCorp spokesman Tom Gauntt told NW Fishletter.
In 2008, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued a new 50-year license to operate the three dams--Merwin, Yale and Swift No. 1--which have a combined total capacity of 510 MW. That license included more than $100 million in fish passage investments at Swift and Merwin dams. It includes facilities at Merwin Dam to trap adult salmon and steelhead, and use trucks to haul them above Swift No. 1, where they are released, Gauntt said. Juveniles are later trapped in the reservoir above Swift Dam, transported by truck and released below the three dams, he said.
Following environmental studies to determine the appropriate next steps for salmon and steelhead in the Lewis River, the decision by federal agencies indicates that PacifiCorp should develop a plan to implement habitat improvements in the Lewis River instead of installing additional fish passage facilities into Merwin Reservoir, a PacifiCorp news release said. The agencies will later consider whether to require additional fish passage facilities into the Yale Reservoir, it said.
Once PacifiCorp develops a plan for habitat improvements, NMFS and USFWS will be asked to approve it before it is sent to FERC for consideration. PacifiCorp will then establish a process with stakeholders to help prioritize the work to be done. -K.C. Mehaffey
 New Scanners Installed At Bonneville Dam To Help Automate Fish Counts
A new scanning system designed to provide real-time data on the species, sizes and markings of anadromous fish traveling upstream has been installed at the Bonneville Dam and will collect data through November.
Under a contract with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, Whooshh Innovations hopes to demonstrate that their scanners are faster, cheaper and more accurate than human fish counters, who tally and categorize salmon and steelhead runs by looking through fish windows, or later viewing video-taped recordings of the windows at dams throughout the Columbia Basin.
The scanning system was set up at Bonneville's fish handling facility, where CRITFC diverts a portion of the fish run to get a sampling of fish lengths, weights and DNA for further studies. Fish from the ladder that are not diverted to the handling facility are now going past the scanners.
Janine Bryan, vice president and chief biologist for Whooshh, said six cameras will capture 18 pictures of each fish as they pass through the system, providing a hard record of the data collected. The photo-quality images show basics--such as whether the fish is a steelhead or Chinook--as well as details like the fish's length and girth; whether its adipose fin is clipped, which identifies it as hatchery stock; and markings that, for example, indicate injuries from predators. The information could be used to better inform fish managers.
Whooshh will use the data to improve its product, using artificial intelligence to better recognize differences between fish. "The more images we can get, the more we can train the computer program to say, 'That's a sockeye,' or, 'That's a shad, and shouldn't go forward,'" said Mike Messina, Whooshh's director of market development. The company has also developed sorting equipment that can separate out unwanted fish, such as invasive species.
Bryan said Whooshh expects to scan some 100,000 fish over the next seven months.
CRITFC spokesman Jeremy FiveCrows said there are many potential uses for the technology. At Bonneville, he noted, warm temperatures in the Columbia River can shut down its facility for gathering data on the run, so that fish aren't further stressed by handling.
"In the past few years, there have been long segments where the river's just been too hot for weeks and weeks at a time," he said. The new technology would enable the fish commission to continue gathering at least basic data, he noted. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Groups Sue To Reduce Fishing, Help Orcas
A lawsuit filed April 3 by two environmental groups says federal agencies are relying on old information to authorize coastal fishing rules, and want the National Marine Fisheries Service to take a new look at the impacts of the Pacific Salmon Plan on endangered southern resident killer whales.
The suit--filed against NMFS in U.S. District Court in Seattle by the Center for Biological Diversity and Wild Fish Conservancy--notes that primary threats to the southern resident orcas' survival are a lack of adequate prey, vessel noise and disturbance, and contaminants. Coastal fishing is having a significant impact on both prey availability and vessel disturbance, the lawsuit claims.
"These coastal salmon fisheries are depleting the salmon stocks at a level that is biologically significant to the orcas," the lawsuit says. In 2018, the Pacific Fishery Management Council reported that over 250,000 Chinook were caught in commercial and recreational fisheries, and another 65,000 were reported from bycatch, it says.
According to the lawsuit, southern resident orcas spend about 244 days a year in coastal waters, and 122 days in inland waters, each consuming roughly 25 salmon a day. That equates to 684,375 salmon needed every year for the entire population of 75 orcas, it says.
The lawsuit says that one study estimates that ocean fisheries reduce Chinook abundance by between 18 and 25 percent, and another study projected that a 15 percent increase in coastal Chinook with a reduction in noise disturbance would allow killer whales to reach growth targets needed to recover.
The groups want the National Marine Fisheries Service to reinitiate and complete a consultation on the impact of authorizing the Pacific Salmon Plan on the endangered orcas, and implement additional mitigation measures to reduce the risk of insufficient prey.
NOAA Fisheries spokesman Michael Milstein said the agency has no comment on the lawsuit, but noted that a March 6 guidance letter from NMFS to the Pacific Fishery Management Council notifies them that NMFS will reinitiate Endangered Species Act consultations on the impacts of coastal fishing this year.
The letter noting that a substantial amount of new information is available since 2009 consultations found that Council fisheries did not jeopardize survival and recovery of the orcas.
The agency is also "working closely with partners to reduce vessel disturbance and interference with foraging, so that the Chinook salmon are more accessible to the whales," the letter says. -K.C. Mehaffey
 April Showers Improve Water Supply, But 'Good Portion' Of Washington Remains Dry
A series of early April storms brought more water than usual to many parts of the Columbia Basin, improving the April-through-September water supply outlook somewhat in the lower Columbia River, and significantly in the Willamette, Rogue and lower Snake rivers.
In a May 2 webinar, Geoffrey Walters, hydrologist for NOAA's Northwest River Forecast Center, said April rains also brought unusually high runoff in the basin's southern and central regions. Looking at snow measurements, he said, it appears that snowmelt has begun in most areas except along the Montana and Idaho border.
The water supply forecast remains largely unchanged in Columbia River above Grand Coulee Dam--already the driest part of the region, and supply predictions actually dropped in the northern-most regions. The water supply prediction for the Columbia River at Mica Dam in Canada is now down to 89 percent of normal, and dropped in the Kootenai River at Libby Dam to 74 percent of normal.
But many other areas improved.
The forecast at South Fork Flathead River's Hungry Horse Dam is now at 91 percent of normal--up from 82 percent of normal in the April forecast. Both the lower Columbia River at The Dalles Dam and Pend Oreille River at Albeni Falls Dam went from 87 percent of normal on April 3 to 94 percent of normal on May 1.
The lower Snake River saw even more impressive gains, with water supply forecasts at Lower Granite Dam jumping to 115 percent of normal, from 98 percent of normal in April.
"The real eye-popper here is the Willamette and the Rogue," Walters said. At Salem, forecasts now put water supply in the Willamette River at 125 percent of normal, up from 99 percent of normal in April. The Rogue River at Applegate Reservoir expects to have 145 percent of normal water supply, an increase from 121 percent of normal forecast in April.
On April 4, Washington Gov Jay Inslee declared a drought emergency for three central Washington watersheds where water supply is predicted to be well below normal. They include the Okanogan River at 58 percent of normal, the Methow River at 72 percent of normal and the Yakima River at 74 percent of normal. The drought declaration means the state can enact conservation measures and offer support for measures like water leasing or changes to move water through tributaries to support salmon survival.
At a multi-agency drought webinar on April 22, Washington State Climatologist Nick Bond said the drought conditions in most of the Pacific Northwest have eased, but a good portion of Washington is still considered to be abnormally dry, and north central Washington is in moderate drought.
Andrea Bair, with the National Weather Service, said above normal temperatures are predicted for much of the Pacific Northwest over the next three months, and below normal precipitation is "slightly favored," he said. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Brief Mentions: Endangered Rivers, Invasives, Pikeminnow
The Willamette River in Oregon and the South Fork Salmon River in Idaho are on American Rivers' list of America's Most Endangered Rivers for 2019. Released April 16, the annual list identifies 10 rivers that face imminent threats, according to its news release. The Willamette River is listed fifth because dams block access to salmon and steelhead spawning areas--13 of them operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which recently began a new environmental impact statement process. The South Fork Salmon River is listed as seventh, at risk from a proposal by a Canadian mining company to reopen an open-pit mine.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks employees intercepted a boat with dead invasive mussels at its Anaconda watercraft inspection station near Butte, Mont., on April 15. The boat was being transported from the Great Lakes area to Bellingham, Wash, and had been in dry dock since October after its last use in Lake Huron, a news release from the agency says. Inspectors decontaminated the boat before releasing it, and officials in Idaho and Washington will follow up with their own inspections. All motorized or nonmotorized boats being transported in Montana must be inspected prior to launching.
Fishing season for northern pikeminnow opened on the Columbia and Snake rivers on May 1, along with a reward programs that pays anglers who catch them. Funded by the Bonneville Power Administration, the program doled out $1.4 million last year to 3,000 anglers who captured 180,271 pikeminnows . The program pays between $5 and $8 for each pikeminnow at least 9 inches long, and 1,000 specially tagged pikeminnows are each worth $550. The season and rewards run through Sept. 30. Information on how to register, along with maps and how-to videos, can be found at pikeminnow.org. -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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