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Flow Proponents Sound Off as Council Begins Hydro Analysis

by Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter, August 23, 2002

Idaho and Montana contingents have told the Northwest Power Planning Council that they favor changes in hydro operations in the mainstem Columbia and Snake rivers. The two states officially presented their recommendations to the council during its meeting last week in Helena, MT.

Montana has called for dumping the BiOp-mandated flow targets and augmented spring flows, and releasing water from its federal reservoirs more slowly and evenly over summer periods to help resident fish. Idaho wants to reduce flow objectives in the lower Snake River, and eliminate spring augmentation altogether when flows are above 85 kcfs. The state also recommends drafting Dworshak Reservoir over a longer summer period than called for in the current biological opinion for fish listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Council Chair Larry Cassidy was impressed with the states' recommendations. "It may be the first time, for me on the council, I'm witnessing some really hard work by the delegations from these two particular states...this is not 'let staff do it,' it's really hard work and really deserves some compliments. It's educated me in a lot of things."

Washington members said they would take the recommendations home with them and ask various state agencies and affected tribes for comments. The council staff was also directed to look at impacts to power and fish, both resident and anadromous. Staffer Bruce Suzumoto said fish impacts will include some analysis, some modeling, and much information gathering to try and pin down potential benefits to resident fish from the recommended changes in hydro operations.

"What I look for is a scientific basis for what we do and don't know," said Washington council member Tom Karier. He said the science is lacking in some areas of mainstem operation, but that's not a good enough reason to end them. Karier also said he wasn't yet prepared to go as far as Montana has with its recommendations.

Karier cited the Giorgi Report that was commissioned by the council to review the state of current research on flows and fish survival. The report itself cited the latest NMFS studies that have found few, if any, survival benefits to migrating salmon from spring flow augmentation.

More flows in summer seem to make a difference, but it's unclear just how big the difference is, Karier said. "In areas where the science is lacking, do you curtail them or subject them to a field test?"

Cassidy, also from Washington, said he was putting a lot of heat on agency people to get their comments in soon. "The sideboards to this discussion are the inputs from professional scientists," he said. Cassidy wouldn't make any predictions, but it seemed likely that the added analysis means the council won't be ready to vote on the mainstem amendments until October.

It may have been a coincidence, but a day after council members discussed the potential changes to hydro operations, the Fish Passage Center went public with a recent memo that supported current flow strategies. Though the Giorgi Report clearly stated that NMFS scientists have found little evidence supporting a flow-survival relationship for fish migrating in the spring, the Portland-based FPC waded in by posting two memos on its Web site that sent mixed messages about the value of flow augmentation.

"There is nothing in the adult return data, or the PIT tag data that weakens the NMFS scientific basis for migration flows or spill for fish passage for in-river migrants," FPC Director Michele DeHart told Rod Sando, head of the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority, in the memo.

DeHart's memo and another memo released by the FPC responded to questions from Sando and recommended caution when making predictions based on dam counts. DeHart failed to mention that state, tribal and federal harvest managers do that all the time.

According to the memos, Sando had inquired about recent jack counts and a NMFS memo, reported in a July 30 Oregonian story, that pointed out NMFS scientists had noted jack returns for Snake River spring chinook this year were higher than in 2001. The federal scientists suggested that the low flows in the mainstem from last year's drought may not have caused major mortality of the migrants as some had predicted, since most of the young chinook and steelhead had been barged.

The NMFS memo was originally reported July 19 in NW Fishletter. It's had proponents of flow augmentation up in arms ever since.

In her July 30 memo, DeHart said the jack return was not surprising, and compared it to jack returns in a large, ongoing study that is tracking survival of PIT-tagged hatchery fish. She said it was near the 10-year average (1991-2001), but "a considerable decrease" from the previous two years. Her memo neglected to mention that the hatchery releases that produced this year's jack returns were down considerably from the earlier years, a fact that NMFS scientists brought to light. Nearly 11 million Snake spring hatchery smolts were released in 1999, 7 million were released in 2000, and only 4 million were released in 2001.

The FPC memo told Sando that it was hard to understand the "gloomy forecasts" mentioned in The Oregonian, because no forecasts had been generated before the 2002 jacks had been counted. But DeHart herself made a forecast of sorts in February, in comments to NMFS on the federal analysis of spill survival during the drought, that were posted on the FPC Web site. "Despite the high proportion of Snake River fish transported from the 2001 out-migration," DeHart said, "it is unlikely that significant numbers of adults will return from this migration year because of the estuarine conditions."

Two weeks later, IDFG's anadromous fish manager Sharon Kiefer was quoted in an article posted on the Web site of conservation group Idaho Rivers United, saying, "One will only have to wait until the adult returns start coming back from this year's migration to be reminded how grave the situation is for the salmon stocks in the Snake River."

But Idaho has changed its tune. Since the jacks showed up, the state now predicts a spring run of 45,000 spring chinook next year, with the hatchery component (75 percent) about twice the 10-year average, according to a July 19 report by IDFG fisheries chief Virgil Moore to Idaho's Fish and Game Commission. Such a run should allow for a harvest of nearly 20,000 fish, he said.

The news may be good for Mid-Columbia spring runs as well, though only about one-third were transported from McNary Dam. A preliminary analysis of 2002 jack returns, based on the methodology used in the NMFS memo, shows that they returned at a rate similar to the 2000 return, when mainstem conditions were normal, rather than suffering huge mortalities while migrating during last year's drought conditions.

Bill Rudolph
Flow Proponents Sound Off as Council Begins Hydro Analysis
NW Fishletter, August 23, 2002

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