the film
Commentaries and editorials

Oregon House Panel takes
Testimony on Summer Spill

by CBB Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin - March 5, 2004

Members of an Oregon House subcommittee at times this week seemed incredulous at the estimated costliness of spill employed during July and August at federal Columbia/Snake river hydro projects to provide a third passage option for outmigrating juvenile salmon.

Proponents of proposals to reduce or eliminate the summer spill program told the Interim Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water that the practice helps drive up power costs -- thus threatening a fragile economy -- while providing very little biological benefit.

Others called spill operations one of the precious few tools available to help in-river migrants and say it is necessary in the effort to preserve invaluable genetic diversity that will allow the species to persevere. Spill advocates also say that analyses produced by federal agencies to support spill reduction proposals overestimates the financial benefits and underestimates the biological costs.

The special hearing held Monday was to get the testimony of a variety of Oregon stakeholders on record, according to subcommittee chairman, Bob Jenson, R-Pendleton.

It was also intended to "try to either support or influence the governor in the position the governor will ultimately take on the issue," Jenson said. "It is some of our position that the state should take a little more aggressive position" on the issue through the governor's office and the state's Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

While he admitted the five-member subcommittee might not have a consensus on the issue, he said a clear majority felt other, cheaper measures could be employed to replace the biological benefit of spill so that the federal agencies do not have to "spend this $70 million or $80 million."

The Bonneville Power Administration has estimated that, on average, the elimination of the July/August spill program would allow the generation of additional power that could be sold for $77 million annually (a range of $55 million to $92 million). The spill comes at a time when power prices are at a peak, in large part because of high demand in California to fuel air conditioners. It is also at a time when BPA, which markets the federal power, normally has surplus power to sell. That extra revenue helps the agency keep its rates down for its Northwest customers.

BPA and the Corps of Engineers, with help from NOAA Fisheries, this winter offered for comment statistical modeling results that indicate eliminating the planned spill at three Columbia and one Snake river projects during the two months would result in 24 fewer adult returns annually of Endangered Species Act-listed Snake River fall chinook -- again the midpoint in a range of estimated impacts. Unlisted fall chinook, such as from the healthy Hanford Reach stock, would be more heavily impacted -- 19,000 fewer returns on average according to the estimates.

The BPA, Corps, Bureau of Reclamation and NOAA are pondering an array of seven alternatives developed over the winter to evaluate the value of spill to migrating salmon. The alternatives range from a continuation of the current July/August spill plan to an alternative that eliminates spill during those months. Water that is spilled to pass fish instead of being channeled through turbines represents foregone revenue generating opportunity.

Fish can also pass the dams via mechanical bypass systems and the turbines, but the vast majority of the Snake River migrants are collected at Lower Granite, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and McNary dams in summer and transported to a point below Bonneville. That transportation is one of the reasons losses are expected to be relatively low.

The spill strategy now in place is called for in NOAA's 2000 biological opinion, which includes a set of actions such as spill that the agency has said are necessary to avoid jeopardizing the survival of eight of the 12 salmon and steelhead stocks listed under the ESA. The proposals now on the table figure to counter any losses in survival caused by a reduction in spill by implementing other actions -- such as a stepped-up pikeminnow bounty fishery -- that improve salmon survivals. Pikeminnow prey heavily on juvenile salmon.

The federal agencies are expected to meet with Columbia Basin states, tribes and other stakeholders in early April, potentially with a recommended course of action for this summer. The decision would ultimately be the Corps' -- it operates the four dams. But input from all concerned has been actively solicited.

"The states are in a position to offer either support or opposition" to that proposal, Jenson said.

The Pacific Northwest Generating Cooperative's Scott Corwin pointed out that spilling at a cost of $77 million in lost generating revenues to allow an additional return of 19,000 equates to a cost of about $4,000 per fish. That operation could be replaced by two offset measures that the federal analysis says will increase the adult fall chinook return by 50,000 -- a cost of $40 per fish.

"I don't think we could convince the voting public to pay $40 a fish," much less $4,000, said Rep. Mike Schaufler, D-Happy Valley.

One of the measures, increasing the bounty for pikeminnow, proved to be effective during 2001's drought when summer spill was greatly reduced, according to BPA's Greg Delwiche. And reaching an agreement with mid-Columbia PUD to better control flows down through the Hanford Reach is estimated to boost returns by 50,000 adults.

"That would provide immediate benefits," said Jim Litchfield, a consultant speaking for the Pacific Northwest Utilities Conference Committee. Reduced flows on weekends, when power demand is lower, results in the stranding of newly hatched salmon and a reduction in the outmigration.

Reducing harvests that take as much as 50 percent of the run should also be considered as a means of boosting survival to counter any impacts from reduced spill, Litchfield said.

"It seems to me it would be possible to negotiate with those folks," Litchfield said, and "pay them not to kill fish." He said his comments were directed primarily at lower Columbia, non-Indian commercial fishers.

Rep. Jackie Dingfelder, D-Portland, asked how the proposals being considered by the federal agencies fit in "with the development of a new plan" for avoiding jeopardy to the species as the ESA requires.

The 2000 BiOp's no-jeopardy conclusion was declared invalid by a federal judge last May because it relied improperly on certain federal and non-federal action. The judge ordered the BiOp's provisions be left in place while NOAA corrects the deficiencies under remand. The "action agencies" -- BPA, the Corps and BOR -- agreed in records of decision to implement the BiOp.

"We think it is possible to implement a spill change under the auspices of the BiOp," Delwiche said. The federal agencies are bent on making a decision soon so that they have time to implement this year proven measures such as the pikeminnow program enhancement.

The agencies feel the most important issue is to assure the court that the plan "makes up for these 10 returning adults," Delwiche said. He referred to the estimated reduced return of wild, listed Snake River fall chinook that would occur under a mid-range spill alternative. Option C would involve eliminating summer spill at Ice Harbor during both months and at the other three dams in August, when more than 90 percent of the migration has passed. A test of spill comparing spill of 50,000 cubic feet per second to the prescribed BiOp spill would be carried out at Bonneville Dam.

Option C is estimated to reduce the overall fall chinook return by 8,000 fish and allow $51 million in addition revenue generation.

The office of Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski and the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife had more than slightly differing points of view on the topic.

The governor's office has in the past and continues to support "the aggressive non-breach strategy" for management of the federal hydrosystem. Kulongoski also continues to support an evaluation of summer spill's effectiveness, a stance taken jointly by the governors of Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington in 2000 via the Four Governors' Agreement. The four-state NPCC's mainstem amendments to its fish and wildlife program also call for the investigation of the most cost-effective means of providing survival benefits for the migrating salmon.

And while the governor doesn't "think this is a prudent time to really be making major changes," given the legal status of the BiOp, he supports the federal process conditionally, according to policy adviser Jim Myron. Key among those conditions are assurances that sufficient offsets will be implemented.

"We urge the federal agencies to carefully explore spill operation alternatives and appropriate offsets before making a final decision," according to testimony presented by Natural Resources Office advisers Myron and Tom Byler. "Any perceived weakening of the commitment to the non-breach strategy as a result of this decision could risk legal challenges that might reignite the contentious, polarizing debate over dam removal. This is not an outcome we desire."

Myron said the governor will withhold final judgment until the federal agencies actually present a specific action proposal.

Testimony presented by ODFW Director Lindsay Ball and the agency's Fish Division Administrator Ed Bowles said the region should not rush headlong into the evaluation of reduced spill levels.

The spill evaluation proposals now under consideration are "not designed to get at the systemwide" information that is needed to assess the effect on smolt-to-adult survival, Bowles said. Neither are the offsets and accompanying analysis adequate to allow the region to move forward.

"They will not get the benefits they are claiming" from increasing the pikeminnow bounty, Bowles said. The ODFW, which he called the architect of the pikeminnow program, predicts the strategy could actually backfire. Eliminating spill will eliminate the turbulence where young salmon, while they get their bearings, are hidden from pikeminnow.

"You're actually going to get more predation, not less predation," Bowles said. The ODFW testimony says that while 85 percent of the fall chinook are transported, nearly half of the adult returns are from the in-river migrants.

"If in-river migrants are doing relatively well compared to transported fish, then it is even more critical to avoid undermining in-river migration conditions if avoiding jeopardy and providing recovery are desired," according to testimony presented by Ball and Bowles.

"Any reductions in spill should be:

  1. part of a scientifically valid study to evalulate benefits, or
  2. coupled with proven offsets to avoid weakening the aggressive non-breach strategy and avoidance of jeopardy.
From a scientific and biological perspective, the BPA proposal falls short. If spill reductions occur in 2004, alternative offsets should be considered, such as increased flow and spillway improvements," the ODFW testimony concludes.

Related Sites:
Congressman Peter DeFazio:
Congressman George Nethercutt:

CBB Staff
Oregon House Panel takes Testimony on Summer Spill
Columbia Basin Bulletin, March 5, 2004

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation