Those For, Against Mainstem Changesby Barry Espenson
Supporters and opponents of proposed revisions to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's mainstem fish and wildlife program both claimed Tuesday to have law, science and the best interests of the region on their side
The testimony, in Vancouver, Wash., was offered during what was the ninth public hearing held in the four Northwest states to take input on the Council's draft Columbia/Snake river mainstem amendment. The draft was released in October.
A final hearing is planned Jan. 22 in Bend, Ore. The final amendment, scheduled for adoption in March, will outline the Council's recommendations on how the federal Columbia-Snake River hydrosystem should be run. The federal law that created the Council requires that federal dam operators take the Council program into account in decision making processes.
Tuesday night's hearing was dominated by testimony from fishing interests and conservation groups that say the draft amendment ignores the Council's congressional mandate to balance the needs of salmon and power generation. Utility and irrigation spokesmen said the proposal, for the most part, represents a more reasonable balance of water allocation between fish and other uses.
The mainstem amendment represents the second phase in the Council's fifth revision of the rules guiding its fish and wildlife program. The Council program was called for in 1980's Northwest Power Act to protect, mitigate, and enhance fish and wildlife affected by hydroelectric development while assuring the region an adequate, efficient, economical and reliable power supply.
The mainstem process began in March 2001 with a solicitation of recommendations from fish and wildlife managers and other interested parties. It produced 22 recommendations from tribal organizations, state and federal entities, conservation groups, utilities, irrigation interests and individuals. The Council is charged by the Act with weighing that advice as it prepares the program amendment, either including recommendations in the program or explaining why not in "findings" that will follow issuance of the final amendment.
The draft amendment's suggested changes differ in some respects from federal biological opinions that outline hydrosystem measures intended to avoid jeopardizing the survival of fish listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The draft includes a call for the elimination of a BiOp requirement that requires reservoirs be held as high as possible by April 10, within flood control constraints, so as much water as possible is available to augment springtime flows for migrating salmon. The draft questions the biological benefit of those spring flows and suggests that storage reservoirs be drawn on more in winter to produce energy at Columbia and Snake river hydroelectric projects. Under the Council's proposal, reservoirs would refill by the end of June.
For the summer, the Council proposes to release augmentation water from upriver reservoirs over a longer period of time -- May through September, rather than the current May through August -- and at more even flow levels. It is believed that would improve habitat conditions for reservoir- and river-dwelling populations in the headwaters and make more water available to augment flows for salmon and steelhead populations that migrate to and from the ocean in September. Those storage reservoirs include behind Libby and Hungry Horse dams in Montana, Dworshak in Idaho and Grand Coulee in Washington.
The draft amendments would also limit how deeply those reservoirs could be drafted for flow augmentation as compared to the biological opinion.
The Council draft assumes that the changes will have minimal impacts to migrating salmon and steelhead while improving the lot of resident fish upstream and providing more flexibility for hydrosystem operators.
The head of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Fish Division said Tuesday that the proposed reduction of spring and summer flows "would really have some grave consequences, we believe."
"The best available science shows that putting water on the backs of fish," Ed Bowles said, is the best way to improve salmon and steelhead migration conditions. Further limiting the tool of flow augmentation would increase the risk to anadromous fish stocks in the Columbia Basin that are already on the brink of extinction, he said.
"The primary and essentially the only tools to address mainstem mortality are flow and spill," Bowles said. He said that numerous scientific studies show direct linkages between increased flow and fish survival.
Pat McGary of southwest Washington's Clark Public Utilities said public power interests side with the draft amendment's arguments that the flow augmentation, particularly in spring, has minimal benefit for fish and great cost to ratepayers.
"They don't think all of (the current fish operations) are a good return on investment," McGary said. He said the utility also favors a reduction in spill at hydro projects where it can be done with minimal harm to migrating fish. The Council amendment calls for an evaluation to determine the "optimum spill level" at each project to increase fish survival while achieving greater power generating efficiencies. The BiOp calls for a share of the river flows to be released through spill gates, instead of through generating turbines, to flush migrate juvenile fish downstream. The Council wants to find out if more water is being spilled than is necessary to provide the desired survival benefits.
McGary said the Council should help Bonneville hold down costs that have spiraled upward, forcing Clark to twice raise rates by more than 20 percent during 2001. Council staff analysis indicates that the draft's suggested operation changes would boost annual revenues by $8 million with the additional generating opportunities. The analysis indicates that its costs about $228 million each year to implement hydrosystem strategies called for in the BiOp as opposed to "power only" operations. The Council plan cuts that cost to $220 million.
"Every dollar makes a difference," McGary said.
Dick Erickson, manager of the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District, applauded the draft's "moving away from reliance on flow augmentation." He said the district supports instead more of a reliance on other survival improvement tools such as the development of surface bypass technology, more efficient use of spill and a continuation of the "spread the risk" policy that involves transporting many of the migrating fish through the hydrosystem on barges.
Steve Eldrige, general manager of the Umatilla Electric Cooperative, said the draft amendment moves in the right direction but does not go far enough.
"To use all the stored water for fish in not reasonable," he said. He said the Council needed to strike a better balance and that would require further reductions in flow augmentation and spill that would "make a real difference for us."
Eldrige urged adaptive management -- "to try things a different way."
Jeff Curtis, Western conservation director for Trout Unlimited, urged the "precautionary principle." He said the Council should not follow the advice of a few studies that indicate the flow augmentation has little benefit. More studies show there is a correlation between flow and survival, he said.
"We simply do not know enough to make these changes," Curtis said.
Kay Shirey told the Council that the draft amendment "raises a lot of legal issues." Shirey spoke on behalf of the Northwest Environmental Defense Center at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland.
"Throughout the draft amendments, the Council proposes that measures to restore salmon must be balanced against harms to upstream resident fish. We support the Council in protection of all native fish, including native resident fish," Shirey said. "However, to the extent that these amendments take habitat away from salmon to benefit upstream resident fish, they are contrary to congressional intent. Furthermore, we draw a distinction between native resident fish and introduced resident fish. Council has no authority to protect introduced resident fish."
Shirey also said the amendments ignore "the advice of the scientists on its own Independent Science Advisory Board, the Independent Science Group, and National Marine Fisheries Service, none of whom endorse an end to flow augmentation, and all of whom call for more study of flow augmentation program." That goes contrary to Power Act mandates, which also says the Council must give "a high degree of deference" to the findings of fish managers, she said.
Fishing guide Bob Reese said that the recent increase in salmon and steelhead returns "has equated to millions of dollars" for local economies and the sport fishing industry. He urged the Council to avoid making changes that might deal salmon recovery a setback.
"Why adopt drastic changes in flow regimes to please a few," he asked.
The Council will accept comments on its draft proposal through Feb. 7, with an opportunity for consultation through the Council's February 18-20 meeting in Portland. The final Council decision on mainstem amendments will likely be made during its March 11-12 meeting in Whitefish, Mont.
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