the film
Commentaries and editorials

Parties Still Disagreeing Over Spring Spill;
Decision Soon

by Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin - April 16, 2004

It's been nearly ten days since a plummeting water supply forecast prompted the Bonneville Power Administration to ask the multi-agency Technical Management Team (TMT) to turn spill off at two lower Snake River dams.

After three more meetings to talk about the issue, the most recent with the higher level Implementation Team (IT) at a Thursday meeting, parties could not agree on what to do and the decision was left to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has the final responsibility to meet requirements set by the 2000 hydropower system biological opinion.

Witt Anderson at the Corps said his agency is considering all the information presented at the IT meeting and will make its decision later today or Monday about whether to continue or stop spring spill at lower Snake River dams, and how it would administer a test at Lower Monumental dam that requires spring spill.

Spill began at Lower Granite Dam April 3 and at Little Goose Dam April 7. However, after that, a River Forecast Center final April water supply forecast predicted the supply at Lower Granite Dam at 15.6 million-acre feet, for the period April through July, just 72 percent of normal and down from the 83 percent March 20 forecast.

That also dropped average seasonal flow predictions into the lower 70,000 cubic feet per second range, far below the 85 kcfs trigger above which spring spill is allowed on the lower Snake River. That trigger is spelled out in Action 40 of the NOAA Fisheries 2000 biological opinion of the federal hydroelectric system.

BPA said at the IT meeting this week that it plans generation and revenue according to river conditions and when the water supply forecast fell below 85 kcfs, it planned not to continue spill.

Suzanne Cooper of BPA said that spilling at three lower Snake River dams -- Lower Granite, Little Goose and Lower Monumental dams -- costs BPA about $400,000 per day in lost revenue, something the federal power marketing agency had not planned for and that could impact its future prices.

"On a planning basis, with this kind of water, we would have assumed that we would not be spilling at all at the projects and that there would not be a spill test at Lower Monumental," Cooper said at the IT meeting this week. "How we plan our operations figures into our finances."

TMT met Monday of this week to continue consideration of a System Operational Request (SOR 2004-03) from salmon managers that asked to continue spill at Lower Granite and Little Goose dams and to begin spill at Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor dams the evening of April 12.

Spill at all projects, except Ice Harbor, which doesn't have transportation collection facilities, would stop April 30, but would be reinstated at some projects through the spring in order to conduct spill studies. The reasoning for the SOR was based on NOAA Fisheries Science Center information that spring chinook survive better in river early in the season, while steelhead fair better being transported in barges.

On Wednesday, TMT considered another option from NOAA Fisheries, which would have spill begin immediately at Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor dams and continue spill at all four lower Snake River projects through April 23. That is historically the time when the juvenile steelhead population migrating in the river becomes proportionately larger than the population of juvenile spring chinook migrating in the river, said Paul Wagner of NOAA Fisheries.

Both options -- the SOR and the NOAA Fisheries options -- spill water while also transporting juveniles, a practice that spreads the risk between leaving fish in the river and barging fish around the dams.

In addition, once spill ends at the other dams (except Ice Harbor), NOAA supported at the TMT meeting a 30 day spill test at Lower Monumental that already had been planned. It compares the survival benefits between BiOp spill and a bulk spill pattern. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers already has sunk $1.7 million into that test.

Another option for the spill test at Lower Monumental Dam would be to compare survival with bulk spill versus no spill. That option was offered by researchers anxious to move ahead on some type of test this year while also reducing the amount of water spilled by about one half.

Wagner said that although Action 40 in the BiOp specifically identifies the 85 kcfs trigger, the BiOp in Action 51 also acknowledges that new information could influence decisions.

"If results of Snake River studies indicate that survival of juvenile salmon and steelhead collected and transported during any segment of the juvenile migration (i.e. before May 1) is no better than the survival of juvenile salmon that migrate in river, the Corps and BPA, in coordination with NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service or NOAA Fisheries) through the annual planning process, shall identify and implement appropriate measures to optimize in-river passage at collector dams during those periods, " says Action 51.

Neither option was acceptable to John Wellschlager of BPA at TMT meetings. He also was concerned about the procedural issue, which requires NOAA, BPA and the Corps to consult and plan ahead when altering BiOp operations. He raised the issue to IT, which met in an emergency meeting Thursday.

"It's clear in Action 40 that flows must meet or exceed 85 kcfs for spill," Cooper said at Thursday's IT meeting. "Also, the language (in Action 51) describes the potential for new information, but it says that any process will be formalized." That had not been done, she said.

"Last year we had a similar discussion when flows were on the cusp of 85 kcfs, but they were increasing and we had a wet spring," said Jim Ruff of NOAA Fisheries. "We expected to address this issue further in the remand process. However, we still believe based on transportation information that early migrants fair better in river."

He acknowledged that the issue should have been addressed in the one and five year Implementation Plans put together each year by the action agencies. "We will not let that happen again, but we were busy with the remand," Ruff said, referring to the remand of the BiOp by federal Judge James A. Redden.

Redden said the 2000 BiOp relied improperly on certain mitigation actions and on June 2, 2003, remanded the 2000 BiOp to NOAA Fisheries so the agency could correct the plan. The new BiOp is still being developed.

Cooper said the changes should have been done through the consultation process, which is different than trying to do it through the in-season management process.

"We don't collectively put enough resources into preseason planning," said Bill Tweit of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. "But we need to move forward. I strongly recommend doing those things that get us to our goals faster." That's to do the spill research at Lower Monumental Dam and to spill as necessary at the other projects to protect spring chinook, he said.

None of the options gained significant support.

Idaho recommended continuing spill through April 23 and to put off until next week the decision about how to design the spill test at Lower Monumental Dam.

"Another week would get us through the majority of the spring chinook run," said Jim Yost of Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne's office. "Idaho probably will not support spill at any other time this year."

Cooper said BPA supports stopping spill immediately and not conducting spill tests at Lower Monumental this year.

Bill Tweit, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Tony Nigro, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Bob Heinith, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and Howard Schaller, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, all supported the SOR, which includes spill at Snake River dams through April 30 and some type of spill test at Lower Monumental Dam following that.

bluefish does the math for your convenience: BPA estimates that eliminating summer spill would provide 1.15 - 1.49 million Megawatt*hours (MWh) of "surplus" electricity to sell (typically to California) at an estimated average price of $32/MWh (yielding $37 - $46 million). Prices of course will vary with time of day and electricity market conditions. BPA estimates that elimination of summer spill could potentially provide a 2% electricity rate reduction.

Mike O'Bryant
Parties Still Disagreeing Over Spring Spill; Decision Soon
Columbia Basin Bulletin, April 16, 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