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Parties Sign Agreement On Flexible Spill For Fish Passage At Columbia/Snake Dams
Posted on Friday, December 21, 2018 (PST)

An agreement signed this week by federal agencies, states and a tribe promises additional spring spill next year at Columbia and Snake river dams to aid juvenile salmon passage, but how the spill is conducted will be by agreement among six parties and not by court order, as it was in spring 2018.

 

This year spring spill to state total dissolved gas limits, known as gas caps, at lower Columbia and Snake river dams was by an April 2017 order from Judge Michael H. Simon of the U.S. District Court of Oregon. Simon had ordered 24-hour spring spill for the year 2018 only beginning April 3 at lower Snake River projects and April 10 at lower Columbia River projects, and ending June 21 on the Snake River and June 16 on the Columbia River.

 

However, with this Dec. 18 agreement, although start and end dates are the same, daily timing of the spill will now be flexible as to dam and time of day in order to reduce costs to the Columbia River basin power system. The new agreement could be for as many as three years, or until federal agencies complete in 2021 a federal Columbia River power system environmental impact statement and biological opinion for salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act.

 

In the interim, the agreement will be tucked into a 2018 BiOp NOAA Fisheries had planned to complete by the end of this year. That additional work will delay the BiOp to about March 2019, according to NOAA spokesperson Michael Milstein.

 

Agreeing to the new flexible spill regime are the states of Oregon and Washington, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Bonneville Power Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation.

 

In addition, the states of Idaho and Montana reviewed the agreement and are supportive of the flexible operation, a federal agency joint statement said.

 

The spill agreement, according to the statement, said the parties “have aligned on a flexible spring spill operation premised on achieving improved salmon survival while also managing costs in hydropower generation.”

 

“Collaboration is key to this new approach to Columbia River system management,” the joint statement said. “Working together, the region’s states, tribes, and federal agencies have developed an approach that demonstrates environmental stewardship and affordable sustainable energy are not mutually exclusive.”

 

“This landmark agreement will allow for more spill over Washington’s hydropower dams and more water in our rivers for salmon,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said in a Facebook post. “The outstanding hard work and partnership that went into making this possible will give our Southern Resident orcas a better chance at survival.”

 

The agreement that will govern spring spill from 2019 to as far out as 2021, when the final BiOp will be approved, requires flexible spill at levels equal to or higher than that ordered by Simon.

 

According to a joint news release by Earthjustice, Save Our Wild Salmon, the Sierra Club and the Coastal Trollers Association, the “most comprehensive scientific analysis available demonstrates that these higher levels of spill will increase juvenile salmon survival and subsequent adult returns.”

 

“This Agreement is a small step forward for Snake and Columbia River salmon. It is a stop-gap measure to help struggling salmon populations for the next three years,” said Todd True, Earthjustice attorney. “It is not, however, the kind of major overhaul of dam operations, that the imperiled salmon – and critically endangered Southern Resident Orcas – so urgently need if they are going to be part of our region’s future.

 

“We should ultimately be working toward restoring a free-flowing lower Snake River by removing the four lower Snake River dams,” he continued. “If we use the next two years to put in place the kind of actions that will revive orcas and salmon, this interim agreement will be worth it. If we fail to use this opportunity to take bold action, we will fail not only the salmon and the orcas, but ourselves and future Northwesterners.”

 

According to a Dec. 18 Status Report filing in Simon’s court by all parties to the agreement, under the interim agreement the parties to the previous BiOp and spill lawsuit have indicated that they do not intend to continue litigation for more spill. The Status Report and attached 2019-2021 Spill Operation Agreement are at https://www.bpa.gov/efw/FishWildlife/SpillOperationAgreement/doc/ECF-2298_Spill-Notice-and-Agreement.pdf.

 

“In sum, the Agreement reflects that the signatory parties are working collaboratively on fish passage spill operations and related matters during the NEPA remand period,” the Status Report says. “While this Agreement is in effect, the signatory parties and the National Wildlife Federation, et al., Plaintiffs do not intend to engage in any litigation. If these circumstances change (e.g., the Agreement terminates), the signatory parties will notify the Court.”

 

Further, the agreed to spill operations will need to be incorporated into the 2018 BiOp that NOAA had intended to release this month. Now, according to the Status Report, “NMFS intends to complete an ESA consultation before spring fish passage spill operations begin in April 2019. In the interim, the Action Agencies and NMFS will take any necessary administrative steps to address incidental take occurring between the expiration of the 2008/2014 biological opinion and NMFS’s completion of consultation in April 2019.”

 

The agreement calls for flexible spill operations that meet three objectives:

-- Provide fish benefits of spring spill in 2019-2021 for juvenile salmon migrating through the eight reservoirs that are at least equal to 2018 spring fish passage spill operations ordered by the Court;

-- Provide federal power system benefits as determined by Bonneville, with the understanding that Bonneville must, at a minimum, be no worse financially compared to the 2018 spring fish passage spill operations ordered by the Court;

-- Provide operational feasibility for the Corps implementation that will allow the Corps to make appropriate modifications to planned spring fish passage spill operations.

 

A part of the agreement is for states to change their TDG standards. Washington’s current standards call for a limit of 120 percent TDG in the tailrace of dams and 115 percent in the next downstream forebay. The state’s Department of Ecology is considering eliminating the forebay standard and raising the tailrace standard to 125 percent.

 

Total dissolved gas limits are intended to protect young fish from gas bubble trauma in the dams’ tailraces during spill.

 

One of the issues for the Corps in 2018 was determining what the forebay TDG level would be if spill in the upstream dam saturates water to 120 percent TDG. There are too many variables that influence downstream TDG – barometric pressure, wind and temperature – so it is difficult to predict the forebay TDG, Dan Turner of the Corps told the Technical Management Team this week at TMT’s end of year review.

 

In addition, Oregon will ask the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to raise TDG tailrace limits up to 125 percent.

 

Spill will occur at higher gas cap levels for 16 hours a day and at lower levels called performance standard spill for eight hours a day, according to the spill agreement. Each of the eight dams has its own spill levels (details are available in the Agreement).

 

In general, higher spill would occur at times of day when power demand and prices are at their lowest. Spill levels would drop when more power is needed and when that power is most profitable – typically morning and evening hours. The operation would help passage of juvenile salmon when spill levels are high while keeping power generation losses due to the spill at a minimum.

 

The partners to the agreement, in their joint statement, said “This agreement is an important step forward for the parties and the region. Rather than focusing on our differences, we are working together on our shared objectives of improving salmon passage and providing affordable hydropower for the region’s electricity consumers.”

 

Although spring and summer spill has to some extent been a part of Columbia and Snake river operations for years, more recently the initial request for injunctive relief for spring spill to gas cap levels was enjoined with an earlier case argued in District Court. The initial case, heard by Simon, resulted in a May 2016 remand of the federal Columbia River power system biological opinion for salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act.

 

The spill plea was initiated in January 2017 by plaintiffs in the original case, the National Wildlife Federation and the State of Oregon, among others. Simon agreed that more spring spill would benefit ESA-listed fish but delayed the action until 2018 while federal agencies completed a spill plan for the dams.

 

Also see:

 

-- CBB, July 27, 2018, “Court-Ordered Spill Completed In June; Corps Sends Judge Last Of Three Reports Detailing Operations,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/441186.aspx

 

-- CBB, June 29, 2018, “Corps’ Second Spill Report To Court Details Impacts Of High Flows, Involuntary Spill In May,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/441024.aspx

 

-- CBB, June 8, 2018, “NOAA Fisheries Delivers First Court-Ordered Spring Spill For Fish Report; Shows Complex Operations,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/440890.aspx

 

-- CBB, June 15, 2018, “Fish/River Managers Have Differing Interpretations On What ‘Spill To The Gas Cap’ Looks Like,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/440945.aspx

 

--CBB, May 18, 2018, “Court-Ordered Spring Spill Now Moot As High Columbia/Snake Flows Forcing Involuntary Spill At Dams,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/440765.aspx

 

--CBB, April 13, 2018, “Court Ordered Spring Spill For Fish Begins On Four Lower Columbia River Dams,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/440516.aspx

 

-- CBB, April 6, 2018, “New Court-Ordered Spill Regime Based On Dissolved Gas Caps Begins This Week,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/440479.aspx

 

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