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Council Hears for and Against on Proposed Flow Aug Changes

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - December 13, 2002

Those testifying Tuesday evening attempted to pull Northwest Power Planning Council members in opposite directions -- some saying the panel's draft mainstem amendment follows a proper biological and economic course and others saying it ignores both legal and scientific bounds.

Irrigation organizations, utilities and individuals largely endorsed the draft plan as a "step in the right direction" to balance economic and environmental concerns. Conservation groups, sport and fishing organizations, tribal officials and others damned the proposal as a retreat from fish protections, and as potentially illegal. About 30 individuals presented testimony to Council members from Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

The passionate session held at the Council's Portland offices was the seventh in a series of hearings planned over the past month in the four states to take input on the proposal. An eighth hearing is scheduled Jan. 14 in Vancouver, Wash. The final amendment, expected in March, will outline the Council's thoughts on how the federal Columbia-Snake River hydrosystem should be run.

The mainstem amendment is the next phase in the Council's fifth revision of the rules guiding its fish and wildlife program. The Council program was called for in the 1980 Northwest Power Act to protect, mitigate, and enhance fish and wildlife affected by hydroelectric development.

The mainstem process was launched in March 2001 with a solicitation of recommendations from fish and wildlife managers and other interested parties. It brought in some 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 departs in some respects both from the reigning mainstem provisions of the program and from federal biological opinions intended to avoid the jeopardy posed by the hydrosystem to the survival of fish listed under the Endangered Species Act. The draft suggests changes to the spring and summer operations of the major dams and reservoirs.

It 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 more water 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 midwinter to feed hydro turbines instead. 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.

Council staff analysis indicates that the draft would mean an $8 million annual boon to the system -- primarily through those increased wintertime generating opportunities. The analysis indicates that it costs about $228 million each year to implement hydrosystem strategies called for in the BiOp as opposed to "power only" operations. The Council plan pares that cost to $220 million.

While the potential gain represents a relatively small portion of BPA's total revenue of about $2 billion annually, every dollar counts to ratepayers that are becoming increasingly stressed, said Scott Corwin of the Pacific Northwest Generating Cooperation. PNGC is a not-for-profit energy services company that serves some 15 utilities -- and 300,000 customers.

He said that certain hydro operations intended to help fish are not showing biological benefits, "but it's a real hit to customers," Corwin said of the added costs. "When science calls for it, measures should be changed."

He said some of the proposed hydro operational shifts proposed by the Council have the potential to help upstream fish and the economy without harming imperiled salmon populations.

Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, said she felt the draft amendment could serve to retard incremental progress made toward the recovery of salmon and steelhead stocks.

"NSIA has been working year in and year out to increase flows and spill for salmon and steelhead in our rivers and streams," Hamilton said. The recovery efforts in the region have begun to show incremental gains -- gains that could be negated by draft amendment operations that she described as "onerous."

"It doesn't take a scientist to know that salmon need water, and it doesn't take an economist to know that our businesses need salmon," Hamilton said. The NSIA works on behalf of an industry that employs more than 36,000 people. Sport fishers and support business and industry account for more than $3.6 billion in regional economic output, she said. The amendments, she said, puts fish populations at risk to increase power output by one-half of a percent.

Tribal officials likewise said the proposal ignores science and common sense.

"Making the river more salmon friendly means more water dedicated to fish, not less," said Harold Blackwolf Sr. of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. Blackwolf is also a member of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

"We are very troubled by the Council's draft proposal to reduce the amount of water to salmon. Our technical recommendations call for increasing flows and spills, not decreasing them," he said.

"The Columbia River's ecosystem must be made a more salmon-friendly environment if salmon runs to rebuild," Blackwolf said.

CRITFC's executive director, Don Sampson said in a press release that the NWPPC is ignoring its own scientific advisers, the Independent Scientific Advisory Board, who have "upheld the merits of flows and pill to salmon survival."

"We insist that the Council take no action on this proposal until the ISAB has given it thorough scrutiny," Sampson said. The ISAB was formed by the NWPPC and National Marine Fisheries Service to provide independent scientific advice on fish and wildlife recovery issues. Sampson is on the panel, along with the NWPPC chair and NMFS regional director, that steers the ISAB toward review topics.

Pat Ford, executive director of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition said the Northwest Power Act, though which the Council was created, intended that fish and power issues be given equal treatment. That has not happened, and the draft amendment "will deepen that failure," Ford said.

He also said the draft "fails to give due weight" to the input from the region's fish and wildlife managers. He cited the so-called "Tang decision" in 1994 from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that requires the Council to give due deference to recommendations of the fish agencies and tribes.

"The courts have affirmed those mandates in the past," Ford said. The draft has both legal and scientific flaws, he said, and its passage would further erode the public's confidence in the Council's ability to do what's right.

Portland attorney James Buchal argued that the Tang decision says that the Council has to listen to the fish and wildlife managers, "but it doesn't have to do what they say." Buchal spoke at the hearing on behalf of the Eastern Oregon Irrigators and the Columbia/Snake River Irrigators Association.

Buchal said that the Council can say no to demands for augmentation of flows "if you explain yourself properly." He said the provision of augmentation water is not within the Council's duties to mitigate for the impacts of hydro operation on fish and wildlife.

Buchal said that research has failed to identify a flow/salmon survival relationship -- that over varying levels of flows, survival is unchanged.

"If a relationship is flat over the range, there is nothing to mitigate," Buchal said.

Pat Buckley of eastern Washington's Pend Oreille Public Utility District said the district supported the Council's draft in several regards.

The elimination of the April 10 refill requirement would "provide better flood control for our section of the river," Buckley said. By lowering upriver reservoir levels such as Hungry Horse in winter, it allows more space to hold surges in spring runoff that are released now often released. That can cause havoc in the 300 miles of river, including the Pend Oreille, between Hungry Horse and Grand Coulee's Lake Roosevelt.

Buckley said the PUD also liked the added power generating flexibility that the Council plan offered, as well as potential benefits for resident fish.

Others, such as Tom Wolf of Trout Unlimited's Oregon office, said the Council should focus on developing renewable energy sources rather than further limit the water available for augmentation flows. The draft amendment has the potential, he said, of pushing some salmon stocks toward extinction -- in essence sacrificing salmon forever for economic benefits now.

Several commercial fishermen testified as well Tuesday, all pointing to science that says augmentation is beneficial.

"Make your decisions biologically, not politically," said John Baker of Ilwaco, Wash. He said he had been a commercial fisherman for 30 years.

Those interested will get some extra time to formulate their comments on the draft mainstem amendment. The Council on Wednesday voted to extend the deadline to submit comments from Jan. 14 to Feb. 7. The extension leaves open the opportunity for consultation through the Council's Feb. 18-20 meeting. The Council expects to make its final decision on mainstem amendments at its March 11-12 meeting in Kalispell, Mont.

The extension was requested by Oregon's newly appointed Council members, as well as other parties that intend to comment. The draft was approved at the Council's mid-October meeting. Oregon Councilor Gene Derfler joined the Council in November to take the position previously held by John Brogoitti, whose term expired earlier in the year. Melinda Eden will take the place of Eric Bloch, who resigned effective Jan. 1.

Derfler and Eden, in a letter to NWPPC chairman Larry Cassidy, asked for an extension so that public hearings could be held in their state after they are both members of the Council. They said they felt it "important that we receive and understand the public's input.." They also felt extra time was needed so they could familiarize themselves with the process and the policy issues related to the amendments and consult with Gov.-elect Ted Kulongoski. He takes office in January, replacing two-term Gov. John Kitzhaber, who appointed Derfler and Eden.

Barry Espenson
Council Hears for and Against on Proposed Flow Aug Changes
Columbia Basin Bulletin, December 13, 2002

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