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Restoring the Lower Snake River

chinook smoltsJuvenile sockeye from Springfield Hatchery have trouble adapting to release stream

By Eric Barker

November 17, 2017

Hard water at a new sockeye hatchery in southeastern Idaho is proving to be an unforeseen obstacle for both smolts and fisheries managers.

Idaho Fish and Game officials believe juvenile sockeye salmon are having a difficult time adjusting from the mineral-rich water they are raised in at the Springfield Hatchery to the extremely soft water in Redfish Lake Creek, where they are released to begin their journey to the Pacific Ocean.

The young salmon are surviving at lower-than-expected rates.

"A portion of them actually die within visual sight of the release before they even start their out-migration," said Paul Kline, assistant fisheries chief for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game at Boise.

Others are dying before they make it to the Columbia River estuary below Bonneville Dam. Starting in 2015, biologists recorded poor in-river survival rates for the juvenile fish released from the hatchery. Only about 37 percent of them that reached Lower Granite Dam west of Clarkston survived all the way to Bonneville Dam on the lower Columbia River. Biologists would expect to see survival rates of 50 percent to 60 percent.

The poor performance of the juvenile fish that year wasn't a shock, Kline said. It was one of the lowest water years on record, and water temperatures quickly reached dangerous levels for both juvenile and adult salmon and steelhead. Juvenile sockeye from the upper Columbia River also survived poorly that year.

The following year saw more normal flows and water temperatures. Survival of sockeye from the upper Columbia returned to expected levels, but the sockeye from Springfield Hatchery struggled even more, with only 13 surviving between Granite and Bonneville.

Kline said hatchery managers and fisheries biologists looked at several possible causes before settling on the hardness of the water. Kline said the water at Springfield is fairly hard, but the fish don't have any trouble at the hatchery itself. The water in Redfish Lake, which feeds Redfish Lake Creek, is so soft that Kline compared it to distilled water.

Biologists found that the fish produced high levels of the blood hormone cortisol, an indication of stress, after going from the hard water to soft.

Softening the water at the hatchery likely would be too expensive - Kline estimated the price tag in the millions. Instead, the department will try a handful of approaches to fixing the problem.

Smolts are trucked from the hatchery to the creek when they are ready to be released. During the trip, the department will slowly soften the water in the trucks so the change is less pronounced when they are released. Kline said sockeye smolts raised at the Sawtooth Hatchery, which has medium water hardness, don't have any trouble adjusting to the soft water in the creek.

The department also will raise a portion of the smolts at the Sawtooth Hatchery, and it will house others at the hatchery for a short time prior to release as a sort of halfway house between the hard water at Springfield and the soft water in the creek.

Kline said the department expected to have challenges during the first few years of the hatchery.

"It's growing pains associated with operating a new hatchery," he said. "We are fairly confident that we are on to the smoking gun in respect to these observed water hardness differences."

Sockeye were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1991 when the run nearly blinked out. In the nine years following listing, only 23 sockeye returned to Idaho, including two years when no fish made the 900-mile trip.

But the numbers improved modestly, with more than 900 adults passing Lower Granite Dam in 2008 and a high of 2,786 in 2014, just as the state was completing the $13.5 million Springfield Hatchery.

The hatchery releases hundreds of thousands of smolts per year and is working toward a target of 1 million. Fisheries officials expected adult returns to increase when the hatchery came online. Instead they have turned south - just 228 adults were counted at Lower Granite this summer.

Salmon advocates said in a news release that sockeye need more than ramped-up hatchery production and said the best thing for the fish and for threatened runs of spring and summer chinook, steelhead and fall chinook would be to breach the four lower Snake River dams.

"Fish and game biologists are to be commended for saving sockeye salmon from the brink of extinction, but increased focus on hatchery production is failing," said Kevin Lewis of Idaho Rivers United at Boise. "Until we address main-stem survival we're missing the biggest opportunity for these amazing fish."

hatchery.springfieldBy Rocky Barker
November 16, 2017

Only 157 endangered Snake River sockeye salmon returned to the Sawtooth Valley this year — and not one of them came from a $14 million hatchery built to help their recovery.

The Springfield Hatchery opened in eastern Idaho in 2013, paid for by the Bonneville Power Administration — a federal agency that markets power from dams in the Northwest and whose ratepayers provide a major source of funding for regional salmon recovery. It was designed to add up to 1 million more sockeye that could be released into Redfish Lake Creek near Stanley.

But Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologists discovered the young salmon smolts have been dying after their release because of stress.

“What we have learned is that water chemistry appears to be a significant contributor to reduced survival,” Jesse Trushenski, a fish health expert with the department, said when the problem was announced at a meeting Tuesday.

The water in the Springfield Hatchery has an unusually high level of calcium carbonate, making it extremely “hard” while Redfish Lake Creek’s water is unusually “soft,” said Paul Kline, Fish and Game assistant chief of fisheries. When the smolts were released into the creek, they suffered a physiological shock.

It has taken Fish and Game three years to solve the mystery of the low survival numbers of Springfield-raised sockeye.

Read the full story here at the Idaho Stateman.

Nov. 6, 2017

SHASTAA California phenomenon called the ‘duck curve’ successfully predicted an electricity surplus as solar and wind energy flooded the grid. This may be bad news for Western hydroelectric dams that are unable to adapt.

The success of solar and wind energy in California is having a surprising side effect: It may be undercutting revenue for hydroelectric dams, the longtime stalwart of “green” energy in the West.

Four years ago, officials at the California Independent System Operator (ISO), which manages electricity demand across the state, identified a phenomenon called the “duck curve.” The curve – shaped like the profile of a duck – predicted that within a few years growing wind and solar generation would create a surplus of electricity during midday.

That surplus, in turn, would create a condition in which traditional power producers, including hydro, might have to be idled.

The prediction not only proved to be true, but the power imbalance has grown even faster than expected. As a result, there were long periods this year in which market pricing for electricity in California actually turned negative. That means producers had to pay the market to take their energy.

The situation is good for energy consumers, who benefit from lower prices. It’s also good for the planet, because it means solar and wind energy have at last become major contributors to the grid.

The “duck curve,” shown here, illustrates how the rise of solar and wind energy create a growing surplus of power during midday, a phenomenon that is putting economic strain on traditional energy sources including hydropower. (Image Courtesy California ISO)

But it’s a different story for the hydropower industry, especially during springtime. That’s when reservoirs are full with storm runoff and dam operators must release water as snowmelt builds. Normally, they would do so through hydroelectric turbines to generate electricity. But negative pricing could force some to release water by other means, without producing revenue from electricity generation.

The hydro industry may eventually find that some generating units no longer pencil out. And the effects aren’t limited to California: The duck curve influences utilities all over the West, which contribute energy to the grid, in part, to help satisfy California’s huge energy demand.

DuckCruve3 31CAISO

“If there is a lack of demand during the daylight hours, then there is going to be a direct influence on the ability to sell hydropower, which is in a must-run scenario during springtime,” said Gregg Carrington, managing director of energy resources at the Chelan County Public Utility District, a hydropower producer in Washington State. “If energy costs are lower than the cost of production, then it’s going to cause the business model they were developed for to be in question.”

Carrington was on a panel that discussed the issue at this year’s conference of the Northwest Hydroelectric Association. In a PowerPoint presentation, he illustrated how electricity pricing has declined by a dramatic 55 percent over the past six years in the mid-Columbia energy market in central Washington, a region dominated by hydropower.

In an earlier report, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council essentially blamed the duck curve, citing growth of wind and solar power and government incentives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It warned the results could “discourage future power generation development in the region.”

Carrington went a little further, cautioning that energy oversupply could force utilities to mothball some generating units, whether they be coal, natural gas or hydro. Coal plants are the natural first victims, because they are the most polluting. Already, three coal-fired plants in the Northwest have announced plans to close in coming years.

“In the end, what’s going to happen is you’re going to have stranded assets,” Carrington said. “People will turn off baseload assets, and in the long run it could affect [grid] reliability.”

The first victim of this trend in the hydroelectric sector may be the Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) Company’s DeSabla-Centerville facility, a small hydroelectric system on Butte Creek in California. In February, the utility told the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) it planned to withdraw its application for a new operating license for the project. FERC declined, instead directing PG&E to find another entity to buy the hydro system, a process that is still under way.

PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno said he could not blame the duck curve for the utility’s decision to part with DeSabla-Centerville. But he did cite weak energy prices.

The oversupply of energy exemplified by the duck curve has led to negative pricing in Western energy markets – a condition in which power producers may have to pay utilities to take their energy. This graph shows an example from April 9, 2017, in which energy prices turned negative during the middle of the day. (Image Courtesy California ISO)

“Markets have changed,” he said. “The cost to operate it and declining prices for power mean it’s simply no longer good value for our electric customers.”

The repercussions of hydropower closures can be complicated. In most cases, decommissioning and removing hydropower dams is good for rivers, reviving natural river flows and restoring upstream access to spawning fish.price duck

But that may not be the case if PG&E’s DeSabla-Centerville project is shut down. The system, more than a century old, diverts cold high-elevation water from the West Branch of the Feather River into a canal that feeds into Butte Creek. There, the cold water has become essential to sustaining the only wild-spawning population of spring-run Chinook salmon that still survives in California.

So if DeSabla-Centerville was shut down, or if its flows were significantly altered by a new owner, it could threaten this rare strain of native salmon.

As a result, environmental groups don’t want big changes at DeSabla-Centerville.

But they have started looking closely at other hydroelectric dams that may be vulnerable to the new economics.

Dave Steindorf, special projects director at American Whitewater, a river advocacy nonprofit, believes conditions in the energy market have created a new incentive to remove some hydroelectric dams.

“In the middle of the day, if you subtract out wind and solar, the generation need for other resources goes to near zero,” said Steindorf, also chairman of the Hydro Reform Coalition, a collection of environmental groups. “That’s what we want to see. We need to see solar replacing other energy sources.”

Steindorf has been working with an analyst at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory for more than a year to identify Western hydro projects that might soon be on the chopping block due to economic pressures. This, he said, could create new opportunities to reopen rivers for spawning fish and for recreation.

Steindorf said he isn’t prepared yet to identify any vulnerable hydro systems. But he said smaller systems and those that are “run of the river” – meaning they don’t have a lot of water storage – could be the most vulnerable.

“We believe there’s some opportunity here for river restoration, as well as to have the hydropower fleet be more efficient in meeting the changes that are required as part of more renewable energy coming online,” he said. “If we’re going to do anything about climate change, these are the kinds of problems that we need to solve.”

Clyde Loutan, a principal for renewable energy integration at the California ISO, is considered the “father” of the duck curve. He first identified the oversupply problem and developed the forecasts that led to the duck curve. Today, he and others at the ISO are working on a number of solutions to address the problem.

These include energy storage, such as massive batteries to store power at homes and businesses when there’s a surplus on the grid; proliferation of electric vehicles, which are essentially rolling batteries; and even encouraging consumers to use more power during midday when there’s an oversupply.

Hydropower is also in the mix of solutions, Loutan said, because it can generally respond instantly to changing energy demand simply by releasing water through turbines.

The opposite challenge posed by the duck curve is the upright neck of the duck. It represents a steep ramp-up in power demand at dusk – a time when solar energy production tapers off but energy demand spikes as people return home from work.

Hydropower can respond to these ramps faster than almost any other energy producer. But not all hydro plants have this capability.

Loutan noted that many hydroelectric dams are required to meet strict cold-water flow requirements at certain times of the day to protect endangered fish. Others don’t have adequate storage capacity to meet the new energy grid’s ramping demands.

Those that can ramp up swiftly, however, will remain in high demand. What’s needed, Loutan said, is pricing incentives that encourage these hydropower plants to run full-bore during the steep new ramping periods.

“In the spring months, when the snow starts melting, there’s only so much you can do because we have a lot of run-of-the-river hydro. Either you harvest that energy or you lose it,” Loutan said. “The bigger hydros, eventually we’re going to want them to operate a little differently. They’re going to have to align with the challenges we see.”

Drought presents another challenge, Loutan said. Even big reservoirs can’t help meet energy demand if they have no water to move through their turbines.

Another threat is climate change. Some predictions show that in the decades to come, more of California’s mountain precipitation will fall as rain and less as snow. This means more runoff in spring, when hydroelectric dams are already less able to respond to the duck curve; and less runoff in summer, when energy demand is highest.

“There is a pretty big shift going on out there in power generation,” Steindorf said. “These utilities are going to have to look hard at how much they want to spend maintaining a hydroelectric project they know is really not economically viable.”

milesNov. 13, 2017

Our Columbia-Snake wild steelhead and salmon are sounding the alarm this year, and we would do well to listen. Returns of this iconic species to our rivers were as low as they've been in decades.

Recovering wild salmon is about so much more than saving a fish. Our entire ecosystem, culture and Northwest economy are built on the back of salmon.

For the Nez Perce, my people, it goes deeper than that. Our way of life is inextricably linked with these fish - they have been a vital and irreplaceable piece of our lives and culture for tens of thousands of years.

The United States promised my people we would be guaranteed this way of life in exchange for millions and millions of acres of land.

Thanks to the Lewiston Tribune for your recent story and editorial on this issue. It's not news to us that we need a bold new direction if we are to restore wild salmon.

Of this, we, along with stakeholders throughout the basin, biologists, economists and the courts agree: This system cries out for a new and bold approach.

Lower Snake River dam removal is at the heart of any real and lasting recovery effort. We have alternatives for transportation and for energy, but we don't have alternatives for wild salmon.

It is time for hydro to share in its conservation burden. It's long past time we have the courage to do what it takes to save them - and ourselves - in the process.

Rebecca A. Miles, Lapwai ID

dam.san clemente dam 30123October 30, 2017

In 2015 the San Clemente Dam was demolished, in part to restore the watershed and protect endangered steelhead trout. Now scientists are studying the impacts and the findings have them optimistic about the future.

At a time when California was suffering from a record-breaking drought, removing a dam would have seemed counterintuitive. But that’s what happened in 2015 on the Carmel River when the 106ft San Clemente Dam was torn down in the name of public safety and for the benefit of an iconic fish.

Now, two years later, scientists are evaluating just how big an impact the dam removal has had on steelhead trout, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. So far, the results are promising.

“Steelhead trout are crafty,” said Tommy Williams, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tasked with surveying the river for their presence. Like many piscine-oriented people, he holds the anadromous species in high regard. An oceangoing version of rainbow trout, steelhead can migrate in their first, second or third year of life, return to their birthplace to mate and can spawn more than once.

Prior to European settlement, steelhead had survived and thrived through California’s countless droughts and wildfires. Yet despite their tenacity, by the early 21st century they were on the verge of disappearing from the landscape.

The razing of the Sam Clemente Dam served a dual purpose. The sediment-choked reservoir blocked access to the ocean for steelhead and the dam was at risk of catastrophic failure due to earthquakes. Rather than face the prospect of a wall of mud, trees and rocks squashing homes located downstream, the decision was made by the dam’s owner, California American Water, in consultation with federal and state agencies, to demolish the decrepit structure, making it the largest dam-removal project in California’s history.

The project began in 2013 when engineers rerouted a half-mile section of the river above the dam. Remnants of the dam were removed and a series of cascading pools were installed to enable oceangoing fish to swim upstream to the tributaries where they spawn.

Prior to demolition, the prognosis for the steelhead residing in the Carmel River was dire.

Historic steelhead runs on the Carmel River used to be around 20,000 but that number had dropped to fewer than 800 by 2015. NOAA scientist Williams, who has conducted steelhead surveys along sections of the river prior to and after the dam’s demolition, compared their decline to a “death by a thousand cuts.” He attributes their losses to the rise of human habitation in California and to the subsequent demand for water to cultivate crops and for use by cities for the sake of economic development. “We’ve pushed them to the razor’s edge by modifying their habitat,” he said.

Monterey County was no exception. The demand for water led to the construction of the San Clemente Dam in 1921. In turn, the dam blocked the Carmel River’s flow, undermining its ability to support steelhead. And for decades, the steelhead had to climb a fish ladder to swim above the dam, a challenging task made even more difficult during times of flood and drought.

After two years, the river is messy and messy is good. Prior to demolition, the structure had not only blocked steelheads’ ability to swim upstream, but also deprived the river of qualities necessary for their survival. Among them, the river lacked the ability to transfer debris downstream. This is a necessary factor in creating the variety of freshwater habitats young fish require to mature, prior to entering the Pacific Ocean.

Post-dam removal, Williams has seen a mix of fish at various stages of development, both above and below the site of the dam, which is a positive sign that steelhead populations are on the rebound. After surveying numerous sites along the river multiple times, “there’s no cause for concern, and reason for optimism,” he said. He’s upbeat, but he will have to withhold his judgment until NOAA issues its final report, due next spring. With the demolition of the dam, the fish counter used to calculate their numbers was also removed. In turn, the steelhead population is harder to calculate, he explained.

However, the river system is coming back to life. “I’m surprised at how fast the river has responded,” Williams said.

The epic winter storms of 2016 helped speed up the recovery process. Large rocks, fallen trees and tons of sediment located above the dam were swept downstream. And in turn, the debris created ample nooks and crannies for fish to dwell in. As a result of the demolition and subsequent flooding, the river is more complex. “We’re seeing a fish habitat consisting of ripples, runs and pools and not just long runs,” he said. This diversity in habitat is beneficial for fish.

The decision to remove the dam came to a head after state officials decided the dam had outlived its usefulness. Engineers determined the structure was seismically unsafe in 1991, and by 2002 it was full of sediment and no longer supplied water to Monterey residents.

Trish Chapman, the regional manager for the California Coastal Commission, said the decision to remove the dam made sense for the residents of Monterey County and for the fish. Now, the river is linked to the beach and in terms of ecological services, “the most important aspect of taking down the dam is that it reestablishes sediment supply, and with sea level rise we need that everywhere,” she said.

California American Water could have retrofitted the structure for $49 million, a stopgap measure as the dam aged and weakened. Instead, they coordinated with state and federal agencies to raise additional funds for habitat restoration with a total estimated cost of $84 million upon completion.

At this point, the river is in the process of redesigning itself and it’s “super-exciting” to observe, Chapman said. In 2017, the river has the building blocks for a healthy ecosystem, sediment flows downstream and steelhead can move upstream. “Honestly, the river can build a far better river than we do. It’s so much more complex,” she said.

gavel copyNovember 03, 2017

Saying that the five-year timeline to complete a National Environmental Policy Act process for the federal Columbia River power system’s impact on salmon and steelhead is aggressive, federal agencies this week also said they would continue to target completion of the process -- which includes an environmental impact statement -- with a record of decision by September 24, 2021.

A filing in Oregon U.S. District Court October 30 is the first court- required update since the agencies in September completed the scoping part of the five-year process.

A NEPA process was a requirement in the May 2016 remand by federal Judge Michael H. Simon of the 2014 NOAA biological opinion for Endangered Species Act-listed salmon and steelhead in the Columbia/Snake river basin affected by federal dams and reservoirs.

In the July 6, 2016 Order of Remand, the court ordered the federal defendants – the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation – to file a status report of progress toward a completed NEPA process by October 30, 2017.

“The process is presently on track with the five-year timeline proposed by Federal Defendants and adopted by the Court,” the court filing says. “However, the robust participation of the public and interested stakeholders, and the complexity of the issues raised during the scoping period, has confirmed that this timeline is aggressive. Nonetheless, the Federal Defendants continue to target completion of the NEPA process consistent with the schedule adopted by the Court.”

The status report, according to the court’s order, should address the appropriateness of the remaining schedule after the scoping process and how the agencies intend to integrate and coordinate the NEPA process with the Endangered Species Act Section 7 consultation on threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River basin.

The 5-year process under NEPA to produce an EIS was put into motion by Simon in May 2016 when he remanded the latest 2014 NOAA Fisheries’ biological opinion governing river operations to protect salmon and steelhead throughout the Columbia River basin.

Simon gave the operating agencies five years to complete the process, although he expects a new BiOp from the operating agencies and NOAA Fisheries in 2018, and another BiOp when the NEPA process is complete in 2021.

The operating agencies say in the update that they have been balancing compliance with the NEPA remand schedule with competing obligations, such as the court-ordered spill for fish injunction process, also ordered by Simon.

The request for injunctive relief for more spill by the National Wildlife Foundation and the State of Oregon, with the support of the Nez Perce Tribe in January 2017 was enjoined with the BiOp remand in May.

The groups asked the court to begin ordering spill to maximum total dissolved gas levels beginning April 3 this year and to continue for each year of the BiOp remand.

Simon agreed with the plaintiffs that spill earlier in the year at the dams would benefit ESA-listed salmon and steelhead, but held off on ordering that spill until 2018, saying it was “too rushed,” giving federal agencies time to plan for operational changes at the dams resulting from the earlier spill schedule.

For the NEPA scoping process, the federal agencies held 16 public meetings and two webinars across the region during public scoping where the public could ask questions in person and contribute their comments on what should be included in the EIS. They received over 400,000 comments.

The comments addressed over 24 broad categories of topics, including climate change, flood risk management, water supply and irrigation, anadromous and resident fish, dam configuration and operational impacts on threatened and endangered fish, invasive and nuisance species, the NEPA process, Natural Historic Preservation Act compliance and river navigation, among other topics.

“The three agencies acknowledge the effort extended by the public across the region, country, and internationally to provide the thoughtful and deliberate input summarized in this report,” according to the Columbia River Systems webpage at More information on the scoping results is at

In addition to the public, 16 federal, state and tribal entities were invited to participate in comments.

With the scoping meetings and comment period, the agencies completed step two of the $40 million process that began in September 2016. The step-by-step process is scoping, developing alternatives for evaluation, analysis of the alternatives, a draft EIS (2020), public comment, review and synthesis of the draft EIS, preparing a final EIS with preferred alternative, a final EIS and a Record of Decision.

In the update, the agencies laid out their schedule, the same schedule outlined in July 2016 Order of Remand:

Complete scoping: September 30, 2017

Complete the Draft EIS: March 27, 2020

Complete the Final EIS: March 26, 2021

Issue a Records of Decision: September 24, 2021

The agencies also identified the method and a schedule of how they will work with fish and wildlife agencies to integrate the NEPA process with a new BiOp process.

That process by court order includes a BiOp that must be completed by NOAA Fisheries by December 31, 2018.

A second BiOp will coincide with the completion of the NEPA process in 2021.

The federal agencies say in the update that they will be engaged in consultation with NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service throughout the NEPA process, especially as they develop alternatives for consideration in the draft EIS.

Once the draft EIS is published and is out for public comment, the agencies will initiate formal consultation with NOAA Fisheries.

That, they say, will result in a biological opinion and a record of decision in 2021.

“In short, while still in the early stages, Federal Defendants are confident that the rigorous, comprehensive, and inclusive NEPA process they have initiated is progressing towards Federal Defendants’ ultimate goal: the identification of a long-term strategy for the operation and configuration of the Federal Columbia River Power System that complies with all applicable laws, including NEPA and the ESA.”

A BiOp status conference is scheduled November 28.

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