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Economic and dam related articles

Fish Managers Seek Mitigation
for Reduced Ice Harbor Spill

by Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin - August 1, 2003

Fisheries managers this week asked federal dam operating agencies to mitigate for the reduction of spill at Ice Harbor Dam on the lower Snake River by increasing spill at one of the lower Columbia River dams in order to aid juvenile salmon passage through those dams.

However, the System Operations Request largely fell on deaf ears when dam operators, along with NOAA Fisheries, questioned the SOR on the basis that spill at Ice Harbor Dam was reduced to prevent further injuries to juvenile salmon, not for any other reason. Yet the issue did trigger a discussion about when information from passage studies can be used as a reason to adjust operations.

The Technical Management Team at its July 16 meeting decided to reduce spill at Ice Harbor Dam by half to 12 hours per day. But, state and tribal fisheries managers came back July 23 to the TMT to object to the decision because it differs from NOAA Fisheries 2000 biological opinion, which calls for 24-hour spill at the dam.

They said in a July 21 letter to river operators that no summer spill at the dam (the new operation calls for no spill during the hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily) is not a normative river condition and would likely impact juvenile salmon migration through the dam. They added that the studies that TMT relied on to make the decision were preliminary and likely flawed.

"We're asking to mitigate for the loss of spill at Ice Harbor by increasing flows at lower Columbia River dams in a volume neutral manner," said Dave Wills of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He said the spill could be used for benefits at other dams and, although the fisheries managers had not specified which dam should increase spill, he suggested spill at McNary Dam where water temperatures in the collection bays are reaching 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

The BiOp calls for no spill at McNary Dam during summer conditions while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers collects and barges salmon. The barging operation ends Aug. 16 or 17. After that the Corps will continue to collect juveniles, but will truck them to a release point below Bonneville Dam.

"We're still determining whether spill at Ice Harbor is good or bad," said John Wellschlager of the Bonneville Power Administration. He said recent studies are showing that less spill at the dam is better so the idea of mitigating for spill losses not received at Ice Harbor Dam isn't an accurate phrase.

"That's correct, but the information is preliminary and so the BiOp is the operations we should follow until better information is available," Wills said.

"If additional information is available next week that gives us better clarity, wouldn't it make sense to wait a week?" Wellschlager asked, referring to the expectation that better results from a spill study and from a spillway survey perhaps could be available at TMT's next meeting.

Wills said the information would still be preliminary.

"Twenty-two percent injury rate is fairly impressive," said Jim Litchfield, representing Montana at TMT. The 22 percent injury rate is among the preliminary findings from a recent spill study at Ice Harbor Dam. "If even preliminary information indicates injury to fish, we need to change the operation. I think all we've been doing (when reducing spill) is to improve conditions for fish at Ice Harbor."

He said the SOR by the fisheries managers is about spill volume and not about fish and their survival. "If it's not best for fish to spill at Ice Harbor, why make us make up for that spill someplace else?" he asked.

This is the third year of survival tests at the dam, which has a history of harming a larger percentage of salmon when spilling water than when pushing the juveniles through turbines. The Corps' Rudd Turner said 2000 and 2002 showed spill mortality, and that studies done this year are trending the same way -- about a 20 percent injury rate from spill. However, the studies have yet to be finalized or peer reviewed.

"If a study indicates that spill should increase, would you wait three years to do that?" asked Litchfield. "We have an obligation to look at each operational decision and when we see a lot of impact from the study, we should change the operation. Once we know data, we have an obligation to go where it points us and not wait five years to have a peer review. We have to take real time information into account."

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, ODFW, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes delivered the July 21 letter of protest to Brian Brown, assistant regional administrator, and Jim Ruff, Chief of the hydro operations branch, both of NOAA Fisheries.

Related Pages:
Technical Management Team

Mike O'Bryant
Fish Managers Seek Mitigation for Reduced Ice Harbor Spill
Columbia Basin Bulletin, August 1, 2003

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