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Commentaries and editorials

Public Hearings Launched
on Proposed Mainstem Changes

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - November 15, 2002

The rhetoric flared Wednesday in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, along with promises to produce substantive scientific arguments, in what was the first of several public hearings scheduled to take comment of the Northwest Power Planning Council's draft "mainstem" amendment to its Columbia Basin fish and wildlife program.

Only five members of the public spoke during the Wednesday session.

Four railed at what they said was a Council proposal to steer Columbia/Snake federal hydrosystem operations away from federal dictates to provide "flow augmentation" for fish. Those flow prescriptions are in a 10-year National Marine Fisheries Service biological opinion issued in 2000 that is intended to avoid jeopardizing the survival of salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The fifth voice -- that of Public Power Council assistant director Rob Walton -- said his organization's "initial reaction is definite support for the direction" the Council takes in the draft amendment.

The draft amendments adopted by the Council at its October meeting propose changes to the spring and summer operations of the major dams and reservoirs. At the time, NWPPC Chairman Larry Cassidy said that because most of the Council members believe the biological benefits of spring flow augmentation have not been well-documented, the draft proposes to allow more water to flow out in winter and less held in upstream reservoirs to supplement springtime flows for migrating juvenile salmon and steelhead. Oregon Councilor Eric Bloch cast the lone dissenting voice in a 7-1 vote to move the draft forward.

By allowing more water to flow downstream during midwinter's high power demand, the system would have the flexibility to generate more power, and potentially lift the overall reliability of the power system. The Council theorizes that that would make more money available to finance elements of the Council's program, such as prioritized projects, Cassidy said. Under the Council's proposal, reservoirs would refill by the end of June.

For the summer, the Council proposes to release flow augmentation water from upriver reservoirs over a longer period of time -- May through September rather than the current May through August BiOp schedule. This 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, the amendments proponents say. Those fish included non-listed species as well as bull trout and white sturgeon -- both listed under the ESA by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Council draft seeks to test the conclusion of most members that a shift in hydro operations can be made that will be more cost effective and benefit resident upriver fish without hindering efforts to recover listed salmon and steelhead. The Council has stressed that the comment period is intended to draw in scientific comment about the biological impacts of implementing the draft amendments.

The Council also voted to request that the ISAB, which advises both the Council and NMFS on issues of science, to review a set of biological questions related to flow and flow augmentation. The request from Idaho Council member Jim Kempton is intended to inform the mainstem amendment process.

Walton outlined a Pacific Northwest scenario in which power rates are up, the economy is down and many salmon and steelhead runs are much improved, at least in recent years.

"Even some of my most liberal utilities are telling me that their ratepayers are hurting," Walton said of the most fish- and environmentally friendly power providers his organization represents. PPC represents the Pacific Northwest's consumer-owned utilities on important issues both within the region and in Washington, D.C. Members include 114 utilities ranging in size from 45 to more than 300,000 customers.

Walton excerpted portions of the draft that demand a more cost-conscious approach to meeting mainstem hydrosystem biological objectives, such as recommendations for "more biologically effective spill, flow and other operations and actions at minimum cost," and that "actions taken under the program be cost effective" and that "water management operations be optimized to bring the greatest biological benefit for target species at least cost."

He said that improvements to operations and capital projects intended to improve fish survival through the system -- such optimizing spill regimes, reducing spring flow augmentation and deploying removal spillway weirs that could pass fish with a lesser amount of spill -- should be pursued aggressively.

"We intend to work hard in the next few months to provide comments that support those concepts," Walton said.

Others testifying Wednesday said the proposed amendment is another example of the region's powers-that-be forsaking fish in attempts to solve economic problems.

Chase Davis of the Sierra Club's Northwest regional office called the draft "pretty much ridiculous."

He said that every fish and wildlife manager in the region, as well as the federal BiOp and Council's own Independent Scientific Advisory Board, say that the flow augmentation is "important in protecting, restoring and enhancing" the basin's salmon and steelhead populations.

"There are all kinds of scientific documents that point to the benefits," Davis said. And with the Council's own analysis showing that there is no energy crisis looming, the shift of flows from spring -- when many juvenile salmon and steelhead stocks begin their outmigration -- to winter for power generation is unneeded.

"We're leaning on fish again," Davis said. He called the purported benefits to upriver resident fish "baseless," and said that if there is "new science found by the Council, we'd be interested in reading about it." Davis quipped that the plan was driven by "boat ramp biology from Montana, potato biology from Idaho and waffle, pack and hide biology from Washington." Montana Councilor John Hines said he would provide Davis with the documentation of those benefits.

Davis said the draft amendment wrongly chose a course that assumes spring flow augmentation provides no benefit for salmon. That ignores the advice of most fish managers, that flow augmentation should be continued while uncertainties about its benefits are resolved.

"You wonder why we go out of the region; you wonder why we go to the courts," Davis said. "The opportunity still exists to do good things for salmon."

Bloch urged the Sierra Club and "like minded groups" to submit written comments on the draft that cite the science they say is being ignored. Davis promised that his organization and allies would submit written comments.

John Bentley of Post Falls, Idaho, urged the Council to "not fall in the trap of yielding" to special interests as it crafts a mainstem fish and wildlife amendment. He said the region's fisheries are "taking a hit" as their natural system is continually modified to meet power, irrigation and other needs. He, like Davis, said that flow augmentation should be increased, not decreased.

"To continue to compromise that flow down there is a moral injustice," Bentley said.

Jim Hollingsworth of Veradale, Wash., said he is also worried about the Northwest economy. But, he said, the region should "shape the future economy" so that it has a lesser reliance on natural resources, including the water that is needed by fish.

Hollingsworth read a quote from an unknown source, that "the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the natural world." The region needs to avoid taxing that natural world he said, because it will likewise be needed to sustain future generations. That natural world cannot be manufactured or replaced.

"I don't know of anybody yet that has made a fish," Hollingsworth said.

Kell McAboy of Save our Wild Salmon's Spokane office said the downstream BiOp flow targets for fish need to be enforced, not abandoned as the Council draft proposes. The targets -- which have rarely been achieved -- need be enforced so that hoped for survival benefits can be achieved, and the BiOp meets performance standards at planned check-ins in 2003, 2005 and 2008. The BiOp says that if there is a failure to meet survival improvement standards at check-ins, more drastic measures may be needed.

"We're just going to be heading toward that dam removal target" if spill and flow augmentation are reduced, McAboy said.

The mainstem amendments are part of the Council's comprehensive revision of its fish and wildlife program. The Council reorganized the program around a scientific and policy framework in an initial amendment adopted in the late summer of 2000.

Subsequent amendment phases are ongoing, in which the Council will adopt more specific objectives and action measures for the river's mainstem and the tributary subbasins. The Council will incorporate these specific objectives and measures into the program in part through a coordinated plan for the mainstem Columbia and Snake rivers (as well as in locally developed subbasin plans for the more than sixty subbasins of the Columbia basin).

In March 2001 the Council initiated the process for amending the mainstem plan. It received recommended amendments from a wide range of tribal, private and other governmental interests. The Council is obliged to cull through those recommendations, chosing all or parts of them for inclusion in the amendment. The Council also must explain why it dismissed other reocmmendations.

The mainstem plan is to contain the specific objectives and action measures that the program calls on the federal operating agencies and others to implement in the mainstem Columbia and Snake rivers, including especially the operations of the hydrosystem, to protect, mitigate and enhance fish and wildlife affected by the development and operation of the hydroelectric facilities.

The mainstem plan is to include objectives and measures relating to, among other matters:

The Council has scheduled two public hearings in Idaho next week on its draft amendments to the Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program, one in Burley on Monday, Nov. 18, and the other in Boise on Tuesday, Nov. 19.

The Burley hearing will be at the Burley Inn, 800 North Overland, at 11 a.m., and the Boise hearing will be at the Hall of Mirrors, 700 W. State Street, at 6 p.m.

The Council's draft amendments and related materials are posted on its web site, Public comments will be accepted through Jan., 14, 2003. The Council will make a decision in February on a final amendment, according t a Council press release.

A schedule of other public hearings on the amendments includes:

The latter two meeting are being held in conjunction with regularly scheduled Council meetings. Additional hearings may be scheduled.

Barry Espenson
Public Hearings Launched on Proposed Mainstem Changes
Columbia Basin Bulletin, November 15, 2002

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