the film
Commentaries and editorials

Council Seeks 'Solid Science'
to Weigh Draft Hydro Changes

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - November 1, 2002

The potential impacts to Columbia River Basin power generation from proposed changes to mainstem hydro fish operations are quantifiable based on historic averages, though year to year fluctuations in water supply and energy market prices can greatly affect costs and revenues.

The impacts to fish and wildlife from the changes proposed by Northwest Power Planning Council are harder to identify. So, during the next few months the Council is asking for help.

The draft Council plan would ask federal hydrosystem operators to cut back on flow augmentation, particularly in the spring, that is intended to help move juvenile salmon steelhead through the federal hydrosystem. The Council believes the shift will help generate more electricity without hurting the fish.

"We know our draft amendments will be controversial because we propose to change the status-quo dam operations. But we acknowledge that there are significant questions about the fish benefits of spring flow augmentation," Council Chairman Larry Cassidy said.

The Washington Council member stressed that the offerings "are draft proposals, and we want to hear from all of the region's state, federal and tribal fish managers, as well as others affected by the hydrosystem, before we make our final decision. It is imperative that all interested parties weigh in with solid science to support or reject our proposals in order to help us make our decision. All Council members are committed to basing our decisions on the best available science."

Federal "biological opinions," for the most part, guide hydrosystem operations that are intended to improve the survival of migrating, and resident, fish that are protected under the Endangered Species Act. The mainstem amendment to the Council's fish and wildlife program is, essentially, a recommendation to federal "action" agencies that operate the dams and market energy produced in the system.

The draft amendments are posted on the Council's web site, and public comments will be accepted through Jan. 14, 2003. The first opportunity for public to testify will be at the Council's Nov. 13-14 meeting in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Comments will also be accepted at the Council's Dec. 10-12 meeting in Portland and Jan. 14-15 meeting in Vancouver, Wash.

Public hearings on the amendments will be conducted in each the Council's four member states. The places and times for those meetings will be announced later and posted on the web site.

The draft mainstem amendments also account for the impact of the recommended river and dam operations on the region's power supply. An "Analysis of adequacy, efficiency, economy and reliability of the power system" as a result of the amendment's implementation is part of the draft amendment. The Council is required by the Northwest Power Act of 1980 to protect, mitigate and enhance all fish and wildlife of the Columbia River Basin that have been affected by hydropower while also assuring the Pacific Northwest an adequate, efficient, economical and reliable power supply.

According to the draft power system analysis, the National Marine Fisheries Service biological opinion issued in December 2000 "reduces net regional power system output by approximately 1200 average megawatts on average." The average regional hydroelectric generation is about 16,000 average megawatts based on a 50-year historical record.

The average annual power system cost of implementing the BiOp is $260 million "in reduced value of the output when evaluated using wholesale electricity market prices based on average water conditions and an efficiently functioning market," according to the power impacts paper. Those BiOp costs are compared to the "power only" hydrosystem prior to 1980's Northwest Power Act. The Act's fish and wildlife provisions aimed to balance environmental and energy considerations.

The cost estimates are based on an annual average wholesale electricity price of about $28 per megawatt-hour. Most of the power system costs are incurred when generating opportunities are foregone because water is spilled at federal dams to provide fish passage. The timing of water releases to augment flows for fish also affects power and revenue generating opportunities.

Analysis done by the Council's power division staff shows that the chosen draft mainstem amendment could reduce costs by about $8 million as compared to strict BiOp implementation. The path being considered by the Council would result, on average, in an increase in annual energy of 41 average megawatts and 1,747 megawatt-months over the winter season, from December through March.

The preferred alternative outlined in the draft amendment was not the greatest money saver of the alternatives considered. One of several proposals on the table over the past few months had the potential of increasing power revenues by $102 million annually on average, primarily by enforcing spill caps to allow no more than 110 percent total dissolved gas. The Council, in its draft, elected to go with the BiOp spill status quo pending evaluations of whether prescribed spill regimes are optimal for spill survival.

The Council has said it would weigh in on desired spill adjustments after comprehensive spill survival studies are completed.

"And if spill can be reduced at one or more projects without adverse biological effects, the region will also benefit from increased power generation," according to the draft amendment cover letter.

At the other end of the spectrum, one of the alternatives considered would have pushed up power system costs by an average of $47 million annually beyond BiOp requirements. The measure called for increased utilization of flow augmentation and spill to aid fish migrations.

The projected $8 million annual reduction in hydrosystem fish and wildlife costs comes largely from improved generation "flexibility" in January, and to a lesser extent, February and March when power demand and prices are higher. The plan also ups generation potential in September.

The Council proposes to eliminate an April 10 BiOp flood control target elevation for storage reservoirs -- Libby, Hungry Horse, Grand Coulee and Dworshak dams. The intent of the targets is to keep the reservoirs as high as possible in winter, within flood control constraints, so that less of the spring runoff is needed to fill the reservoirs and more can be sent down stream to augment flows for migrating salmon.

Shifting the water in this way would improve hydrosystem flexibility, which would help in the event of future power emergencies, and could result in increased hydropower sales. If so, more money would be 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. This is intended to 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. Under the BiOp, are drafted to certain levels by the end of August in an attempt to meet summer flow targets at McNary and Lower Granite dams for migrating salmon.

"The (BiOp) operations, in the Council's opinion, have an adverse effect on the conditions for fish in the reservoirs and in the rivers immediately below the reservoirs, due both to the depth of the summer drafts and the fluctuating manner in which the water is released," Cassidy wrote in the cover letter.

The Council would also limit drafts at Libby and Hungry Horse dams in Montana to a depth of 10 feet less than the BiOp calls for, thus reducing the overall volume available for downstream "augmentation" in late summer.

The draft would, based on a 50-year average, reduce April-June flow volume by 400,000 acre feet as compared to BiOp flow, according to analysis produced by John Fazio, Council power system analyst. July-August flow volume would be reduced by 800,000 acre feet, because of reservoir draft limits and the slower, more prolonged releases. The analysis shows an average gain of 400,000 acre feet in September, making the overall reduction in flows 800,000 acre feet.

Again based on 50-year average water conditions, federal storage reservoirs would have 400,000 less water on April 15 under the draft plan than they would under the BiOp. June 30 reservoir levels would be the same as under the BiOp and Aug. 31 reservoir storage would be 800,000 acre feet greater than under the BiOp.

"In many years these operations would result in reductions in flow through the lower Columbia hydrosystem in both spring and summer, but it is the Council's hypothesis that these flow reductions would be statistically insignificant and not adversely affect the survival of listed anadromous fish migrating through the system at these times, while improving the biological benefits for listed and non-listed resident fish in and around storage reservoirs," Cassidy wrote in a cover letter to the draft amendment.

"The Council requests comment in general and scientific and technical assistance in particular concerning (a) the extent of the biological benefits to fish species and populations from these changes; (b) whether and to what extend anadromous fish will be adversely affected by these flow changes; and (c) whether and to what extent the region's power system will benefit from these changes."

Knowing the biological effects of the proposed changes would be most crucial in dry years. In average or above average years the late April flow at McNary would little impacted.

"In dry years the flows are lower because we use the water in the winter months," Fazio said of the draft plan.

Through the river operations proposed in the draft amendments, the Council hopes to improve spawning, rearing and resting habitat for all fish in the river system, from ocean-going salmon and steelhead in the lower river to resident species like bull trout and white sturgeon that inhabit rivers and reservoirs in the headwaters areas, according to a NWPPC press release.

"We expect a strong response from the public to our proposals for river operations and to the other elements of the draft amendments, as well," Cassidy said. "Because the Council is a planning agency, and because all four Northwest states are equally represented, the Council is the proper place for this debate."

The mainstem amendment will build on the general provisions of the Council fish and wildlife program that were adopted in August 2000. The draft contains "specific objectives and measures that the program calls on the federal operating agencies and others to implement on the mainstem Columbia and Snake rivers.

Barry Espenson
Council Seeks 'Solid Science' to Weigh Draft Hydro Changes
Columbia Basin Bulletin, November 1, 2002

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