February 15, 2019
An agreement was signed by federal agencies, states and one tribe in December that sets a framework for how spring and some summer spill at Columbia/Snake river dams will be conducted this year and for a couple of years into the future until its concept can be tucked into a new environmental impact statement and biological opinion of the federal power system in 2020 and into the interim 2018 BiOp expected to be released by NOAA Fisheries in April.
The Columbia River Flexible Spill and Power Agreement was signed Dec. 18, 2018 by 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.
The agreement has been acknowledged as a collaborative and creative way to provide spill to help juvenile salmon more quickly and more safely migrate downstream through Columbia and Snake river dams, while also providing benefits in electricity produced by the system for BPA. Those who devised the spill agreement are also looking to it as a model in how the fish and power sides can seek common ground on future issues.
“We all know we have challenges ahead of us, but we hope this model will serve as an innovation for the future,” said Elliot Mainzer, BPA Administrator.
Mainzer and others from power and fisheries agencies who were responsible for crafting the agreement laid out the backstory of how they arrived at a consensus on spring spill for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council at its meeting, Wednesday morning, Feb. 13.
“This is impressive and great public policy that recognized the competing interests and optimizes the two,” said Tom Karier, Washington Council member after listening to the entire presentation.
Along with Mainzer, the lead players briefing the Council were Rob Lothrop, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, Ed Bowles, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Dave Johnson and Jay Hesse, Nez Perce Tribe, Jason Sweet, BPA, Tim Dykstra, Corps, Michael Garrity, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Ben Zalinsky, BPA. All had a hand in developing the agreement.
In 2018, spring spill to state total dissolved gas limits, known as gas caps, at eight 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 flexible spill 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. In 2019, enhanced spill up to 120 percent TDG will occur during daytime hours – about 16 hours each day – and power production with less spill and more water going through the turbines will occur during shoulder periods in the evening, night and morning.
Introducing the panel at the Council presentation, Zalinsky said that these are groups have not always historically agreed on issues, but that “we’re all committed to the principles of this agreement.” He added that CRITFC was “central to the thinking on the flexible spill issue, but it was the only organization at the table today that did not sign on to this.”
Lothrop said that all the parties agree to the principle of the flexible spill operations and what he called the “three pillars” of the agreement: provide benefits for fish, provide federal power system benefits and provide operational feasibility.
Showing a graph matching spill levels with survival levels for Snake River wild spring/summer chinook salmon, Bowles said there is a long history tracking spill and juvenile salmon survival, and, generally, the more spill the higher the survival.
In addition, he said, there is a long track record of looking at the assumed negatives of spill, such as TDG. With information showing that dissolved gas levels can safely be higher than current state TDG standards, TDG levels in 2019 will rise to 120 percent in the tailraces of the eight dams (it was 115 percent).
The Washington Department of Ecology has set in motion a public process to raise its standard to 120 percent, Garrity said, and Oregon is already at the needed standard. Acceptable TDG levels will rise to 125 percent for spill in 2020. Both Oregon and Washington will need to change their standards in the coming year. (See CBB, February 1, 2019, “Washington Ecology’s Draft EIS Raises Gas Cap To Allow More Spill For Fish At Columbia/Snake Dams.”
According to Bowles, spill will increase when the value of power is low and will decline during times when the value of power is high (performance standard spill).
“Daytime hours are now less profitable (for BPA) due to the amount of solar and wind in the system, but the shoulder periods are profitable,” he said.
However, for the flexible spill to work, spill needs to be “optimized” during the hours of spill while not robbing the shoulder periods of water. “To do this, we needed to alter the water quality standards (TDG) to meet the fish spill needs,” he said.
The result of the agreement is the avoidance of litigation in 2019 and 2020, Lothrop said. Still, there is a certain amount of uncertainty predicting fish and power effects.
Hesse said fisheries agencies, led by CRITFC and the Nez Perce, developed an analytical tool that, during the negotiation process, helped to lower the uncertainty level.
At the same time, a power system technical team was analyzing the impacts on the power system and operational feasibility, which is the ability of the Corps to implement the spill agreement while still meeting all Congressionally authorized purposes, Dykstra said.
The fish benefit “logic path,” according to Hesse, starts with increased spill, decreased power house encounters by the juveniles (PITPH), increased smolt to adult survival and increased adult return abundance. The result is a drop in fish encounters (PITPH) from the 2014 BiOp spill level, indexed at 2.98, to the court-ordered spill, indexed at 1.76, to the 2019 120 percent flexible spill, indexed at 1.73, and to 125 percent spill in 2020, indexed at 1.47 at six projects and at 1.38 at John Day and The Dalles dams.
The actual amount of spill in 2019 at Lower Granite Dam, for example, during the 120 percent spill hours is 45,000 cubic feet per second. That drops to 20 kcfs during performance standard spill when more water goes through turbines. In 2020, when TDG is 125 percent, daytime spill rises to 72 kcfs. Another example is the John Day Dam where spill this year and next year at John Day Dam will be 146 kcfs, dropping to 32 percent of the river for power production.
Some summer spill operations are also affected and will be divided into spill June 21/16 to Aug. 14 and Aug. 15 to Aug. 31.
Summer spill operations for 2020 are yet to be finalized, according to Sweet of BPA. “The economics are a little more challenging in 2020,” he said. “We all agree that if we can’t offset the spring costs (with power produced), we will need to do something a little different. We may need to offset spring costs with reduced summer spill.”
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.