New Coalition of BPA Customers
by Bill Rudolph
With federal agency executives slated to make a decision about summer spill by the end of March, a pair of coalitions are staking out their own patches of policy turf.
Earlier this month, an umbrella group of 54 Northwest tribes, known as the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, passed a proclamation opposing any reduction in summer spill at federal dams.
But a group of Bonneville Power Administration customers, known as the Coalition for Smart Salmon Recovery, formed this month to promote reducing spill, which it says could save the power marketing agency up to $77 million a year.
On Feb. 19, the industry group sent a letter to the four Northwest governors, asking for support in eliminating or reducing the expensive program that costs the region more than $3 million for each ESA-listed fish.
"Summer spill was begun with good intentions, but has not proven as effective as first hoped," the coalition said. "Rather than blindly continue a costly and ineffective strategy, we are urging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, BPA, and NOAA Fisheries to eliminate or reduce summer spill in those cases where science shows that more effective alternatives exist."
The coalition is made up of industry and agriculture-related groups, including the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, the Pacific Northwest Generating Cooperative, the Public Power Council, and the Pacific Northwest Utilities Conference Committee.
Using BPA's own numbers, the coalition says $2 million could pay for programs that could add another 50,000 salmon a year to fall runs.
However, environmental groups, including Earthjustice, announced a week ago that they planned to sue BPA, the Corps and the Bureau of Reclamation, an action that could torpedo any reduced spill scenario before next summer.
Earthjustice's latest "notice to sue" letter is an amended version of its original May 9, 2003 missive that only targeted NOAA Fisheries. The updated notice alleges that the action agencies charged with implementing the hydro BiOp--namely BPA, Bureau of Reclamation, and the Corps--have failed to comply with the ESA, as well as with the prohibition on "take" of listed species.
Earthjustice attorneys have already tried to get the BiOp thrown out after the process went into remand, but last June federal judge James Redden ordered the BiOp to remain in place while it was being rewritten.
The new letter says the action agencies have consistently failed to implement all the measures of the RPA (i.e. the Reasonable, Prudent Alternative), including Bureau and Corps decisions to "significantly curtail spill and flow measures."
The letter came a day after the BiOp steering committee discussed getting a temporary restraining order to keep summer spill from being reduced.
"We disagree fundamentally with the premise of the letter," said Scott Corwin, spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Generating Cooperative. "The action agencies are implementing the BiOp, and the large fish returns from ocean conditions are enhanced further from actions in the hydro system. We've come a long way in the last few years."
The "notice to sue" letter says that without offsite mitigation in place for dam operations to avoid jeopardizing ESA-listed fish runs, current operations do jeopardize the species. Unless action agencies "cure the violations" within 60 days, the groups said they will go to court to seek preliminary or injunctive relief to protect the listed species.
BPA says a no-spill option in July and August would likely reduce the numbers of ESA-listed fall chinook by only two dozen fish or less, but the smart money is betting that the execs will approve a proposal to evaluate the costs and benefits of a reduced spill regime.
One option under consideration--BiOp spill at four dams in July, but none during August--could save ratepayers $42 million a year, and is estimated to reduce future adult numbers of all stocks by only 6,000 fish. Only six listed fish were expected to be lost, using a smolt-to-adult return rate of 2 percent.
After input from regional fish managers, BPA lowered some of the expected benefits from its potential offset actions. Initial smolt benefits are expected to be about half of last month's estimate from increasing the pikeminnow bounty program enough to reduce its population by 2 percent. But the benefits are similar to the ultimate improvement eight years out that was pegged in January (7,000-56,000 more adults annually).
The benefits from reducing juvenile stranding in the Hanford Reach may be less than estimated, as well. BPA said the strategy could add another 30 million fry in 2004, the equivalent of about 50,000 adults.
But comments sent from Grant County PUD biologist Joe Lukas to BPA may get the power agency to reduce those expected benefits. Lukas said using more realistic density data and SARs (0.2 percent to 1 percent) than BPA used in its analysis (0.5 percent to 4 percent SARs) could add 2,000 to 10,000 more adults to runs, instead of BPA's more optimistic 16,000 to 124,000 fish from the 2004 outmigration.
But using those same "more realistic" SARs from Lukas would reduce adverse impacts calculated from reduced spill as well. With a 1 percent SAR, impacts from no summer spill would reduce the adult numbers of all affected stocks by about 9,000 fish. Calculating the estimated losses from an option more likely to be approved by agency execs (BiOp spill July, no August spill) would result in losses in the 3,000-fish range.
But the message from the tribes was shrill. In their press releases last week, they trumpeted potential losses up to 50,000 adults a year. Calls to the Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission were not returned.
Regardless how the numbers play out, some, like Washington Power Council member Larry Cassidy, just aren't impressed with BPA's offset analysis. "We should have direct mitigation for those fish being lost," Cassidy said at last week's meeting of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.
Later, Cassidy told NW Fishletter that he was especially concerned about stocks that originated below McNary Dam that couldn't benefit from barging, and the Hanford and Okanogan runs from his state.
He didn't think improving the pikeminnow program would help that much, either. As for the reduced juvenile stranding at Hanford by minimizing river fluctuations, he said BPA shouldn't get double credit for it, since the power agency was going to sign an agreement to do it, anyway.
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