Now that spring spill under the multiparty flexible spill agreement has ended, agencies are beginning to ­analyze whether the objectives for fish, power generation and operational feasibility were met.

The agreement—which provided a break from ­ongoing litigation over fish issues—was signed in ­December by the Bonneville Power Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of ­Reclamation, Oregon, Washington and the Nez Perce Tribe.

Under it, spill was increased at eight federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers above 2018 spring spill levels for 16 hours when market prices for electricity are lower, and allowed federal agencies to spill below the 2018 levels for eight hours, when prices are high.

Spring spill operations began April 3 on the Snake River, and April 10 on the Columbia River; they ­concluded June 21 at the four lower Snake River dams, and on June 10 at the four lower Columbia River dams.

Customers and advocacy groups continue to see benefits of staying out of court, although some expressed concerns that the spill levels could actually be ­detrimental to the river environment or to fish subjected to total ­dissolved gas levels of 120 percent every day for more than two months.

The agreement’s goals this year were clear: to benefit juvenile salmon and steelhead in the Snake and Columbia rivers, with 2019 passage conditions at least equal to the court-ordered passage in 2018; to ensure that Bonneville does not lose more money than it did under the 2018 spring spill operations; and to allow the Corps to modify spill for operational feasibility.

Under the agreement, this year’s spring operations generally spilled water over the eight ­federal dams to 120 percent TDG at each dam’s tailrace for 16 hours each day, and reduced spill to performance standards for a total of eight hours daily—usually split between morning and evening.

Different at each dam, performance standards are the levels of spill in NOAA’s 2008 biological opinion intended to meet performance standard testing. They are between 30 and 48 percent of the flow at five of the dams, and a set volume of the river flow at three others.

Managing the flexible spill this spring was not without its trials.

On May 8 and 10, the Columbia River ­Technical Management Team (TMT) discussed the Corps’ ­difficulties in keeping tailraces at both John Day and The Dalles dams at 120 percent TDG while maintaining a healthy flow over both dams. At one point, DS ­Consulting facilitator Emily Stranz asked members of the team to “check your tone,” and “take a deep breath.”

A month into implementing the spill agreement, the multi-agency team was working through its first big issue—whether to try to maintain a 120-percent TDG at both dams even if it meant reducing spill at The Dalles to, potentially, no spill at all. In the end, the team modified the spill agreement somewhat in order to maintain at least 40 percent of the river flows as spill at John Day, with the understanding that the operational change did not set a precedent for future operations.

By late May, the team was dealing with another issue—turbulence from high runoff and later from spill in the Snake River apparently caused some adult spring Chinook to delay migration over Little Goose Dam.

This has been a common problem at Little Goose, but one that usually resolves itself as runoff subsides. When the problem persisted, the team used an adaptive management provision to go outside the agreement’s spill parameters, asking the Corps to spill at performance standards for eight hours each morning to give the adult Chinook an extended period of time of lower flows to help convince them to continue their journey upriver.

At its June 26 meeting, TMT members were still concerned about the delayed adults, five days after ­spilling to gas-cap levels had ended.

Claire McGrath, representing NOAA ­Fisheries, told the team the conversion rate for fish passing Little Goose that had gone over Lower Monumental was 93.2 ­percent—still lower than the historical averages of between 98 and 99 percent. Team members also expressed concerns that, although relatively few fish were involved, some of the adults took between 15 and 40 days to travel from Lower Monumental past Little Goose, instead of the average time of two or three days.

“We just need time to catch up and we can do a year-end analysis and see where we ended up,” McGrath told the team.

NOAA Fisheries spokesman Michael Milstein told Water Power West in an email that the delay in adult p­assage was the main issue that arose in this year’s spring spill. He said the agency won’t have much information to judge the success of the spill for juveniles until this fall, when they have preliminary numbers on juvenile ­survival, travel time and passage routes.

Milstein added that NOAA won’t be able to ­analyze whether pushing more of the juveniles through the spillway and away from turbines and fish bypass s­ystems actually improved smolt-to-adult returns until the j­uveniles return as adults in three to four years.

Michelle DeHart, manager of the Fish Passage Center, said whether the spill worked will depend on the analyses.

Tony Norris, Bonneville Power Administration analyst and a TMT member, told Water Power West, “I would say overall implementation went smoothly. But, given that this was a new operation, there are a few issues to address prior to next season. As far as how it played out financially, it is still being analyzed.”

The Corps also has some investigating to do before coming to final conclusions about how flexible spill worked for them. Corps spokesman Matt Rabe told Water Power West that his agency is keeping an eye on ­riverbanks for things like erosion. “Any time you put more water down a river, you have to be looking for unexpected outcomes,” he said.

The spill regime itself—switching back and forth from higher to lower flows four times a day, along with adjustments to continuously meet the 120 percent gas caps at eight dams—required more time and attention to implement, he said. But, he added, “From the Corps’ perspective, we believe that the agreement worked as it was anticipated.”

Fish and hydropower advocates and BPA customers agree that it’s too soon to draw conclusions about how well the spill agreement worked.

Jodi Henderson, Benton County PUD’s manager of communications and government relations, said they’re waiting to see the final analyses before judging whether there were benefits to fish or impacts to power costs. “We would say that any additional power we’re receiving from the lower Snake River dams is tremendously valuable,” she said. From an initial perspective, “There is some value in the spill agreement,” she said.

Sean O’Leary, spokesman at the NW Energy Coalition, said the implementation did not send up any red flags. “Generally speaking, it appears to be working pretty well,” he said.

Kurt Miller, ­executive director of­ ­Northwest ­RiverPartners, said if the financial impacts to BPA are neutral compared with last year, “That’s a win for the region, because we’re not in court right now, and I think none of us really believes that these ­challenges will be solved in court.”

Joseph Bogaard, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon, said he hasn’t seen any results to be able to discern if it was beneficial to fish.

But George Caan, executive director of the ­Washington Public Utility Districts Association, said even without the data, he has concerns about fish survival under the higher TDG levels, which have been shown to negatively impact fish. Under the agreement, dissolved gas levels will increase from 120 percent to 125 percent next year; and Caan said he has great concerns about raising those levels without a solid understanding of the effects on fish.

“It’s good that BPA was able to make an ­agreement outside of court, but my concern is that the judge c­ontinues to dictate spill amounts that are costly to BPA and aren’t helpful to fish,” he said.

Caan added that he expects this year’s analysis to indicate it was revenue neutral for BPA compared with last year, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have a financial impact. Last year’s court-ordered spring spill cost the region nearly $38.6 million in lost power generation.

This year, BPA made up for the lost revenue through cuts to the Fish and Wildlife Program. Caan said BPA ­customers won’t know whether those costs are being passed on to them until projections for the next rate case come out.

The PUD Association plans to hold BPA to its ­promise of revenue neutrality next year, too, he said.

K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.