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Hydro Conference Focuses on Saving Dollars and Salmon

by Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter, June 13, 2003

A two-day meeting sponsored by hydro utilities and the Northwest Power Planning Council gave Mid-Columbia public utility districts a chance to strut their stuff last week and show off expensive new hardware designed to improve fish survival past their Columbia River dams. With NMFS and BPA policy folks also on hand, the June 3-4 meeting allowed for a frank discussion of fish costs and potential savings related to changing certain operations, notably mainstem spill in late summer.

First, the good news. Chelan County Public Utility District's $112 million fish bypass system for Rocky Reach Dam seems to be working well. It's attracting as much fish as attention these days, corralling about 60 percent of all the steelhead that approach the dam, according to PUD biologists. It's part of their "least-cost" approach to reach fish survival goals (no net impact) spelled out in the mid-Columbia Habitat Conservation Plan being implemented by Chelan County and Douglas County PUDs to satisfy their obligations to protect steelhead and chinook stocks listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Grant County PUD, though not a partner in the plan, reported on progress towards developing more fish-friendly turbines. A prototype is expected to be in place for testing at Wanapum Dam by spring 2005. The aim is to reach a 98 percent fish survival rate. If the prototype is successful, Grant expects to replace all nine turbines at the dam by 2012 at a cost of $120 million. After that, the 10 turbines at Priest Rapids Dam would also be replaced, allowing the utility to meet fish passage standards without costly spill measures now in place.

It may have been strictly coincidence, but many attendees received the latest Wenatchee Basin redd counts in the mail June 3, when the conference began. Chelan PUD biologists reported that 2002 spring chinook returns were the third highest since 1954, totaling 1,139 redds. The record for this timeframe was set in 2001, when 1,876 redds were counted. The second highest count was taken in 1966, when 1,174 redds were tallied.

But improved fish survival tools weren't the conference's only focus. Financially strapped agencies like the Bonneville Power Administration are counting dollars as closely as fish these days, and fish operations are undergoing more scrutiny than ever before.

Power Council staffer John Fazio reviewed his latest cost analysis of these operations, which he said will help the council focus on where to spend research money, along with helping to prioritize measures if a future power emergency calls for cutting certain fish operations. He said the analysis also will help the group choose between different alternatives that achieve the same biological objective.

Fazio said his results show that in low-water years, flow augmentation costs mandated by the federal Biological Opinion are higher than those for bypass spill used to aid fish passage around dams. In wet years, Fazio said just the opposite is true, because spill levels mandated at some dams are based on a percentage of total flow rather than a certain target number.

He estimated that bypass spill is costly, especially at The Dalles and John Day dams, where summer spill costs alone have averaged about $40 million annually when estimated over 50 years under BiOp conditions. At Bonneville, summer spill--water over the dams from June through August--adds another $17 million, according to Fazio's analysis.

Cost of Summer Spill (Courtesy of Bonneville Power Administration) He told the group that summer spill costs averaged about $67 million annually at Ice Harbor, John Day, The Dalles and Bonneville dams. NMFS' own data, however, cited only about a 0.6 percent increase in survival of ESA-listed Snake River fall chinook from BiOp spill compared to no spill at all. Benefits are small because most Snake River fall chinook are barged through the hydro system.

NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator Brian Brown, who heads the agency's Portland-based hydro operations group, said Delwiche's graph was "thought-provoking" and "could conceivably lead to an experiment in summer spill."

Brown had earlier explained how "flexible" the BiOp was, citing instances where operational changes were studied, such as reducing spill levels at John Day and spring flow augmentation from Dworshak. The results led to changes in BiOp operations at John Day that saved money by reducing spill levels, but passed similar numbers of fish. As for Dworshak, "we learned it didn't work," Brown said.

Brown noted that summer spill is an issue "that will continue to get pressure until it gets attention." But he said a study of summer transport must also be undertaken. Most Snake River fall chinook are barged, he said, which puts "that much more impact on such small numbers...without it ever having been studied." He implied that until the true impacts of barging the fish are known, the summer spill strategy would be maintained.

Power Planning Council member Tom Karier told the biologists and engineers at the conference how important it was to display their information in ways that attracted the attention of policy makers. As an example, and probably not coincidentally, he displayed a graph that tracked summer spill levels at Bonneville Dam with ever decreasing smolt levels. By August, it was easy to see that a lot of water was being spilled for very few fish. But NOAA's Brown did not respond.

Others pointed out that such an assessment of the summer spill strategy could be fraught with difficulties. US Army Corps of Engineers biologist Rock Peters told NW Fishletter that so few fish are still in the river by August that it would be difficult to develop a meaningful study. Adding to that, he said pit-tagging fish for survival studies during the summer can be lethal for juvenile fish when the water hits 70 degrees.

But momentum is building for some kind of spill assessment to begin this year. After the conference, Brown told NW Fishletter that he wasn't sure where things will end up, but his boss, regional administrator Bob Lohn, was "working the other execs"--the action agency heads responsible for dam operations--to get something going.

On May 30, four Northwest congressmen sent letters to Lohn, BPA and the Corps of Engineers, asking for their immediate consideration "so that meaningful tests could be conducted this summer." Oregon Reps. Greg Walden (R) and Peter DeFazio (D) , along with Reps. Doc Hastings (R-WA) and George Nethercutt (R-WA), said the Power Council's recommendation to examine summer spill "may lead to benefits to both fish and wildlife and to ratepayers in the region who have experienced large increases in wholesale power rates over the last two years."

PNGC Power had weighed in earlier in May with its own letter to BPA Administrator Steve Wright that called for tests this year. PNGC President Pat Reiten pointed out that summer spill was "primarily aimed at passage of a very healthy run of 'non-listed' fish that are subject to significant rates of harvest. Assisting passage of these fish in a more effective manner could provide a unique 'win-win' situation for fish and for ratepayers of the region," he said.

A BPA analysis requested by the Pacific Northwest Utilities Conference Committee of biological and economic effects from reducing spill says that stopping spill in the lower Columbia for the last two weeks of August would increase revenues by at least $17 million, with negligible effects on ESA-listed fall chinook from the Snake River.

The analysis found that Columbia River fall chinook, mainly from the Hanford Reach area, would experience about 5 percent less survival. However, since only about 10 percent of the run is still migrating by the middle of August, the potential action would only decrease adult returns by around 600 fish. The analysis (assuming 11 million fall chinook survive to John Day Dam) says that would add up to only 41 fewer chinook for non-tribal fishermen to catch, worth about $4,100 to the economy, and 117 fewer chinook for tribal fishermen, worth about $7,600. The BPA analysis also noted that "there is no means this year to study the effects of curtailing spill by two weeks."

Bill Rudolph
Hydro Conference Focuses on Saving Dollars and Salmon
NW Fishletter, June 13, 2003

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