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Tribes’ Report Examines Altering Dam Operations To Get Closer To Natural Flows
Posted on Friday, July 14, 2017 (PST)

 A new report examines the potential economic costs and benefits in changing dam operations to mimic natural river flows in the Columbia Basin.


The report was commissioned by the Columbia Basin Tribes Coalition, which includes 15 tribes and three inter-tribal commissions -- Upper Columbia United Tribes, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, and Upper Snake River Tribes. Pacific Rivers, Save Our Wild Salmon, and Waterwatch of Oregon also sponsored the report.

The tribal alliance hired Tacoma-based Earth Economics to conduct the study, which led to a recently released, 150-page report.


“The Value of Natural Capital in the Columbia River Basin: A Comprehensive Analysis” can be found at


The study takes two approaches for modeled river management: a “current conditions” scenario, and a “modernized Columbia River Treaty ecosystem function.” The latter focuses on the potential future value of the Columbia River Basin if river operations were modified mainly by augmenting spring and early summer river flows with reservoir storage.


“In the CRB, past and current economic practices have developed and operated built capital assets while undervaluing or entirely disregarding, natural capital assets. Yet, natural capital assets provide the region with essential goods and services such as sustainable food, jobs, recreation, clean water, and carbon sequestration, among many others,” the report states.


“As Columbia River Treaty assessments continue and U.S. domestic decision making processing ensue, it is essential that sustainable natural capital value be given serious consideration in actions that affect river management.”


“This report illustrates and documents the immense economic value of the Columbia River Basin’s natural assets and provides clear evidence of the increased value that can be gained by addressing ecosystem-based function in a modernized CRB management,” the report’s executive summary states.


The report makes big predictions, saying it is aimed at stabilizing river flows, reservoirs, providing restoration of fish populations and increasing the regional economic value of the basin. The study states that hydropower generation would be reduced by $69 million from its present value of almost $3 billion, but the new management model would increase the total CRB economic value by about $1.5 billion annually.


The hydropower decline would be mitigated by other enhanced benefits, such as a non-tribal  commercial fishery that would increase in value by $7 million per year. General recreation is expected to experience a slight increase of $39,000, while angling value would increase by $46 million.


The new management approach, if enacted, would increase spring and early summer water flows and would be valued at $389 million, and nutrient enhancement could reach an estimated value of $31 million.


The tribal alliance is working to dovetail changes with a new U.S.-Canada Columbia River Treaty that is being shaped to emphasize “ecosystem function,” or managing the system to match natural flow regimes. The concept is largely built off a Variable Flow (VARQ) approach to dam operations that was championed by the State of Montana starting in the late 1990s. That approach, when it was adopted, was aimed at curbing entirely unnatural flows, such as mid-summer flow augmentation calls on water for the benefit of salmon in the lower basin.


Montana prevailed in court partly by demonstrating that flow augmentation from Hungry Horse Dam and Libby Dam could not be adequately measured to show fisheries benefits at the Dalles Dam.


That is still the case at The Dalles and other dams in the basin, said Brian Marotz, the hydropower mitigation coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.


“We could release a lot of water but when it goes through the next set of downstream reservoirs…it’s very difficult to measure because it’s so stretched out,” said Marotz, who was a leader in establishing VARQ in Montana.


That is partly what the tribes are seeking at other hydro projects, along with “rolling back” the most conservative Flood Risk Management approaches that can lead to empty reservoirs because high inflows never materialize during the spring runoff. The new approach would focus on individual dams striving to manage flood control on immediate downstream rivers.


“Every (river) branch differs. One could be at flood stage, one could be at drought stage. “If there’s a gully washer in one drainage, you could be managing local flood risk management for waters downstream from a dam.


“Flood risk management is one of the greatest impediments to ecosystem function,” said Marotz, who has been working with the tribes on their preferred approach. Ecosystem function is a Columbia River Treaty term that translates to natural flows, or the VARQ approach.


“What we’re trying to do is implement VARQ-like operations at more projects in the Columbia, even if they don’t have a lot of storage,” he said.


Or, as the report puts it: “If the Columbia River basin were to see even a 10 percent increase in ecosystem-based function, it could add $19 billion to the total natural capital value.”


Governments in Canada and the U.S.  are still conducting assessments of the Columbia River Treaty. The current treaty expires in 2024, and must ultimately be approved by the U.S. State Department and Global Affairs Canada.


Also see:


-- CBB, June 23, 2017, “Northwest U.S. House Members Urge Administration To Renegotiate Columbia River Treaty”


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