Binational Report Points to Areas of Columbia River Collaboration

posted Sep 3, 2015


A new report commissioned by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council and the Columbia Basin Trust identifies a number of areas for improved cooperation and collaboration across the international border in the Columbia River Basin.

The report responds to requests made by participants at the October 2014 International Columbia River conference in Spokane, Learning from Our Past to Shape Our Future, which was co-hosted by the Council and the Trust. Participants specifically challenged the Trust and Council to bring together individuals and organizations working across the international border to share data, information, and funding to collaborate on ways to effectively and efficiently address complex regional environmental and energy issues, as well as foster a greater sense of shared Columbia River Basin identity.

For the Council and Trust, whose officers signed a memorandum of agreement in 2000 (revised in 2011) to pursue projects of mutual interest in the international Columbia River Basin, the new report is an attempt to understand the current transboundary management landscape. In addition to documenting who is doing what, where, and with whom in the basin, the report also identifies the most compelling needs, interests and priorities for these initiatives so that any efforts to increase cooperation are seen as useful and elicit wide participation. The report also recommends potential next steps for the Council and Trust, and others, in their role as transboundary cooperation facilitators.

A total of 46 transboundary initiatives are described in the report, and 34 individuals were interviewed by the report authors, Ingrid Timboe and Meghan Carter. Based on the themes of working groups at the October transboundary conference, the identified initiatives fall into the following categories: ecosystem function; fish passage and restoration to areas blocked by dams; invasive species and/or toxic substances in water and land; climate change; energy; and transboundary river governance.

Based on the interviews, the most compelling needs identified in the report include:

  • Improving basinwide coordination
  • Coordinating fishery and hatchery management in the mainstem Columbia and its tributaries
  • Creating integrated and consistent invasive species management protocols throughout the basin
  • Improving understanding of interconnectedness and shared responsibility regarding basinwide resource management;, and
  • Cultivating a Columbia River Basin identity and basin culture

Of these, the three with the greatest promise, according to the authors, are: 1) convening annual meetings or forums on transboundary issues such as, for example, efforts to eradicate invasive species; 2) creating a publicly accessible, shared transboundary database; and 3) expanding and integrating environmental monitoring programs to share information across the border.

Genetics Analysis Can Help Detect Early Presence Of Invasive Freshwater Mussels

posted Aug 25, 2015

These tiny freshwater mussels can devastate fisheries and ruin water structures.

Scientists at the University of Montana are perfecting a technique to detect the presence of invasive freshwater mussels long before they form massive colonies that can clog water intakes, impact hydropower and irrigation facilities, cover marinas and beaches, and ruin fisheries by robbing the water of nutrients.

In a recent presentation to the Council, Dr. Gordon Luikart, a professor of conservation ecology and genetics at the Flathead Lake Biological Station of the University of Montana, described the use of environmental DNA in a laboratory analysis so sensitive that even the presence of a single mussel can be detected from a water sample. The early warning provided by the presence of environmental DNA would help fish and water managers identify and treat initial infestations early before they spread, jump-start prevention efforts, and potentially save millions of dollars in mitigation costs.

Aquatic organisms release environmental DNA into the water through digestion including, for example, feces, urine, tissue cells, mucous, seeds, and plant material. In a laboratory, scientists can collect free DNA and sloughed cells from a water sample and target specific organisms. In Montana, the university scientists sampled water from 32 lakes and found DNA from native freshwater mussels in 28 of them, but no DNA from non-native, invasive zebra or quagga mussels in any of them.

The result of submersion in a mussel-infested water body. 

Zebra and quagga mussels can survive out of the water for two weeks or longer and usually are transported from one water body to another on infested watercraft. Lakes and rivers in the Eastern, Midwestern, and Southwestern states are infested, but Northwest water bodies have not been, at least not yet, and each state has aggressive programs to inspect watercraft traveling into the region. Luikart noted that zebra and quagga mussels can out-compete and kill native mussels and clams, remove up to 80 percent of the edible plankton, deprive juvenile and smaller fish of food, disrupt the food web, and cause fish populations to crash.

Once zebra and quagga mussels infest a water body, they form thick mats of hard shells that can clog water intake pipes and distribution networks for municipal, agricultural and hydropower water supplies. Power producers in the Great Lakes region spent more than $3 billion on control and eradication between 1993 and 1999; the Council’s Independent Economic Analysis Board estimated the annual cost to mitigate the impacts of an invasion of hydropower dams in the Columbia River Basin at several hundred million dollars per year, costs that would be passed on to electricity ratepayers. In Idaho alone, the potential cost of mitigating impacts to all water structures – power, water supply, irrigation – has been estimated at $95 million per year.

The Council’s 2014 Fish and Wildlife Program supports suppressing and eradicating non-native and invasive species in the Columbia River Basin. Aggressively addressing these species to preserve program effectiveness is one of the seven key emerging priorities in the program.


Building A Perimeter Defense Against Invasive Mussels in the Northwest

Northwest Continues To Prepare In the Event Invasive Mussels Arrive

Construction Barges Contaminated With Invasive Mussels Heading to Seattle

Council Urges Inspections At Lake Mead To Prevent Spread of Invasive Mussels

Idaho Decontamination System Aims To Prevent Spread of Invasive Mussels




Survey: Washington Cannabis Growers Would Like Help with Energy Efficiency

posted Aug 17, 2015

An indoor cannabis-growing facility.

Cannabis growers in Washington surveyed by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council this year say they are interested in learning more about how to use electricity more efficiently. However, while they are interested in incentives and programs to reduce their energy use, most replied they have not been contacted by their local utilities to discuss energy-saving options.

Electricity is a major part of the cost of cannabis production, largely for lights and climate control.

In June and July, the Council’s staff contacted 378 growers in Washington and received replies from 16. It’s not a big sample, but the responses were nearly unanimous. Light-emitting diode (LED) lamps are energy-efficient for indoor plant growth, but the bulbs are expensive and so most growers continue to use high-pressure sodium (HPS) or metal halide (MH) lamps, which are less expensive and less energy-efficient. However, the cost of LED lamps is coming down, and growers who don’t use them now indicated an interest in trying them. A small minority of producers reported no interest in switching to LED lighting due to the diminished quality of cannabis grown with LEDs compared to that of cannabis grown under HPS or MH lamps. All but two of the producers said they also would like to try solar power as a means of reducing energy use and lowering the cost of production.

In 2014, the Council began work on a regional 20-year forecast of energy use in the indoor production of cannabis. The forecast will be part of the Council’s next 20-year power plan, which is under development and should be released for public comment late this fall.

Based on information collected from cannabis growers in Washington and Colorado, where recreational marijuana production is legal, the Council’s forecast of electricity use in the indoor production of cannabis ranges from 185-300 average megawatts region-wide over the 20-year planning horizon. That amount of power is roughly equal to the annual electricity use of 126,000-204,000 Northwest homes.

The Council’s long-range forecast assumes production occurs in all four Northwest states. Currently, recreational cannabis production is legal only in Washington. Oregon will begin issuing commercial recreational marijuana licenses to growers in 2016.

Warm Water Wreaks Havoc on Columbia River Fish

posted Aug 12, 2015

This sockeye is one of many that strayed into Drano Lake, a backwater of the Columbia River east of Stevenson, Washington, probably in search of cooler water. The white patches, possibly a type of fungus, are caused by exposure to warm water. United States Geological Survey photo and video.

Six words describe the state of the Columbia River in 2015 for salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon: Too hot, too early, too long.

The unusually warm June and July raised Columbia River water temperatures to lethal levels, and above, for weeks, coinciding with the peak of the migration for the most temperature-sensitive salmon, sockeye. Spring Chinook and steelhead, which migrate earlier in the year, also were affected, and fall Chinook, which are migrating now, likely will be affected, as well. Representatives of the four Northwest state fish and wildlife agencies, plus the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and NOAA Fisheries, briefed the Northwest Power and Conservation Council at its August meeting.

Dan Rawding of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said the number of sockeye counted crossing Bonneville Dam, the first dam inland from the ocean where fish can be counted, was the second-highest on record, more than 500,000 fish. But the number of these fish counted at McNary Dam, two dams and 146 miles upriver, was about 277,000. While inter-dam losses are normal, this year it appears that at least 100,000 more fish died than is normal in that reach, Rawding said. The primary culprit appears to be water temperatures that were consistently above 70 degrees – the highest and longest-duration ever recorded in July in the forebay of the dam. These aren’t record temperatures, just record early temperatures for a record long time, Rawding said. Prolonged water temperatures above 68 degrees are lethal for cold-water fish like salmon and trout.

Snake River sockeye, an endangered species, appear to have been hit hard by the warm water, said Paul Kline of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Extraordinary measures have been taken to protect them, including trucking fish from Lower Granite Dam to spawning grounds in central Idaho or to hatcheries. To date, only nine have arrived on their own at the spawning grounds compared to about 500 at this time last year, he said.

Sturgeon also have suffered. Tom Rien of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said 134 “oversized” sturgeon – large fish of spawning age - have been found dead in the Columbia. There are many possible causes for the die-off, he said, including prolonged exposure to warm water and gorging on dead sockeye. Dead spring Chinook salmon and steelhead also have been found in the Columbia, notably downstream of Bonneville Dam, Rien said.

In Montana, Matt Boyer of the state Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, said warm water triggered a number of responses to protect the state’s wild trout and bull trout. These included time-of-day fishing restrictions and efforts to reduce irrigation withdrawals to help cool rivers and streams.

Ritchie Graves of NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency that implements the Endangered Species Act for salmon, said Northwest fishery managers coordinated their efforts well this year in response to the extraordinary conditions and plan to issue a report this fall. Graves said it is scientifically impossible to tell whether the 2015 conditions were an aberration or a harbinger of future summers, a new normal. “Personally, I think we need to plan for events like this to recur,” he said.

Warm Water Blamed for Huge Columbia River Sockeye Die-off

posted Jul 31, 2015

This sockeye strayed from the Columbia into the Little White Salmon River and died. Seattle Times photo.

Federal and state fisheries biologists say more than a quarter million Columbia River sockeye salmon have died in the river and its tributaries this summer as the result of unusually warm water prompted by the regionwide drought and hot weather, which has warmed the river to unseasonably high levels for this time of year. The die-off has wiped out half of the anticipated 500,000-fish sockeye run.

Water temperatures in the Columbia have been measured above 70 degrees, and temperatures in tributaries have been higher. Salmon die if exposed to water warmer than 68 degrees for long. Most of the dead and dying sockeye disappeared between Bonneville and McNary Dams.

Biologists expect the sockeye die-off will continue, perhaps reaching as high as 80 percent of the run before the fish reach spawning grounds in north central Washington, British Columbia, and the mountains of central Idaho. Meanwhile, a robust run of fall Chinook – more than 900,000 fish – is forecast for the Columbia system this year. That species typically enters the river from the ocean beginning in late July and early August.

Washington and Oregon fish and wildlife agencies closed all sturgeon fishing in the Columbia on July 18 after dozens of the big, bottom-dwelling fish washed up on river banks dead, many of them near the Tri Cities of Richland, Kennewick, and Pasco. Officials also closed afternoon and evening fishing in many Northwest rivers where low flows and high water temperatures are stressing fish. Columbia river managers are releasing water from upriver storage reservoirs in an effort to cool the downstream water temperatures for salmon and steelhead migrating now and in anticipation of upcoming fall Chinook and coho migrations.

While the 2015 Columbia River runoff volume is not historically low, the problem for fish is the combination of low flows and high water temperatures brought about by summer days of 90-degree and hotter temperatures. The water temperature above Bonneville Dam, for example, has averaged 73 degrees in recent weeks, nine degrees warmer than the average for the same time period over the last five years. For salmon, that’s the difference between lethal and non-lethal conditions.

The near-record low Columbia River runoff in 2015 did not result from a lack of precipitation but from a lack of snow, particularly in the United States portions of the basin. Thus, the winter of 2014/15 could be an anomaly, or it could be an example of what the average winter in the Pacific Northwest could be like by the end of the century, if predictions of an increasingly warmer climate prove accurate.

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The Seventh Power Plan

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The Flexibility Challenge

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