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The Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program
The states of the Columbia River Basin, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington, formed the Northwest Power Planning Council, an interstate compact agency, under the authority of the Pacific Northwest Electric Power Planning and Conservation Act of 1980. The Power Act directs the Council to develop a program to protect, mitigate and enhance fish and wildlife of the Columbia River Basin affected by the development and operation of the basin's hydroelectric facilities, while also assuring the Pacific Northwest an adequate, efficient, economical and reliable power supply. The Act also directs the Council to inform the public about fish, wildlife and energy issues and to involve the public in its decisionmaking.
The Council's Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program, first adopted in 1982 and periodically revised, is the nation's largest regional effort to recover, rebuild, and mitigate impacts on fish and wildlife. As a planning, policy-making and reviewing body, the Council develops and then monitors implementation of the fish and wildlife program, which is implemented by the federal agencies that manage, operate and regulate the basin's hydroelectric facilities. These include the Bonneville Power Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and its licensees.
The 2000 Fish and Wildlife Program and the Mainstem Plan
In 2000, the Council adopted a set of amendments to the fish and wildlife program to begin a complete revision of the program. In the first phase of the amendment process, the Council reorganized the program around a comprehensive framework of scientific and policy principles. The fundamental elements of the revised program are the vision, which describes what the program is trying to accomplish with regard to fish and wildlife and other desired benefits from the river; basinwide biological performance objectives, which describe in general the fish and wildlife population characteristics needed to achieve the vision; implementation strategies, which will guide or describe the actions needed to achieve the desired ecological conditions; and a scientific foundation, which links these elements and explains why the Council believes certain kinds of actions should result in desired habitat conditions and why these conditions should improve fish and wildlife populations in the desired way.
The program amendments in 2000 set the stage for subsequent phases of the program revision process, in which the Council is to adopt specific objectives and action measures for the river's mainstem and tributary subbasins, consistent with the basinwide vision, objectives and strategies in the program and its underlying scientific foundation. The Council intends to incorporate the specific objectives and measures for tributaries into the program in locally developed subbasin plans for the more than sixty subbasins of the Columbia River.
This document comprises a coordinated plan of operations for the mainstem Columbia and Snake rivers. The Council adopted the mainstem plan in April 2003.
In preparing the mainstem plan, the Council solicited recommendations from the region's state and federal fish and wildlife agencies, Indian tribes and others, as required by the Northwest Power Act. Various agencies and tribes responded, and the Council also received recommendations from other interested parties. The Council prepared a draft after reviewing the recommendations, supporting information submitted with the recommendations, and comments received on the recommendations. The Council conducted an extensive public comment period on the draft mainstem plan before finalizing these program amendments.
Expectations for the Elements of the Mainstem Plan
The role of the mainstem plan and the Council's expectations for it were described in the 2000 Fish and Wildlife Program in the section on Basinwide Hydrosystem Strategies and in the section entitled Schedule for Further Rulemakings. The mainstem plan is to contain specific objectives and action measures for the federal operating agencies and others to implement in the mainstem Columbia and Snake rivers to protect, mitigate and enhance fish and wildlife affected by the development and operation of hydroelectric facilities while assuring the region an adequate, efficient, economical and reliable power supply. The mainstem plan includes objectives and measures relating to, among other matters:
- the protection and enhancement of mainstem habitat, including spawning, rearing, resting and migration areas for salmon and steelhead and resident salmonids and other fish;
- system water management;
- passage spill at mainstem dams;
- adult and juvenile passage modifications at mainstem dams;
- juvenile fish transportation;
- adult survival during upstream migration through the mainstem;
- reservoir elevations and operational requirements to protect resident fish and wildlife;
- water quality conditions; and
- research, monitoring and evaluation.
The Council evaluated the mainstem plan recommendations and these program amendments for consistency with the program framework elements adopted in 2000, including the vision, biological objectives, habitat and hydrosystem strategies, and underlying scientific principles.
A Different Mainstem Plan for a Different Context
In the past, the Council's fish and wildlife program included detailed hydrosystem operations for fish and wildlife. In December 2000, NOAA Fisheries (formerly the National Marine Fisheries Service) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued biological opinions for the operation of the Federal Columbia River Power System to benefit populations of salmon, steelhead, bull trout and white sturgeon listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). The hydrosystem measures in these opinions run to hundreds of pages of detail and hundreds of measures on system configuration, river flows, reservoir management, passage improvements, spill, juvenile transportation, predator management and more. These measures are built on foundations developed in the Council's program over the last 20 years.
In developing this mainstem plan, the Council asked for recommendations addressing, in part, how the plan should relate to the biological opinions on hydrosystem operations. The relevant recommendations received can be loosely grouped into four categories:
- recommendations that the Council adopt a mainstem plan consistent with the objectives and measures in the biological opinions;
- recommendations that concluded the biological opinions do not prescribe sufficient flow, spill and passage operations to benefit listed fish, and so the Council should adopt additional measures to that end;
- recommendations that concluded the biological opinions exceeded what was necessary to benefit listed fish, to the detriment of the power supply and other uses of the river, and so the Council should adopt a mainstem plan with scaled back flow and spill operations that are, in the view of those making the recommendations, more biologically and economically efficient in how the limited resources of the region are applied; and
- recommendations that concluded the operations specified in the biological opinions are not sufficient to protect, enhance or mitigate for the adverse effects of the hydrosystem on fish and wildlife not listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act, and may be especially adverse to resident fish (listed and non-listed), and so the Council should adopt objectives and measures for that purpose that would be either supplemental to, or in some cases in conflict with, current implementation approaches to biological opinion operations.
The Council considered and drew from recommendations in all four categories in developing this mainstem plan. In general, however, two overriding concerns motivated the Council in deciding what objectives and measures to include in the plan:
- The mainstem plan includes a set of habitat considerations, objectives, principles and measures intended to protect, mitigate and enhance all the fish and wildlife of the Columbia River Basin affected by the development, operation and management of the hydrosystem, whether listed or not, as required of the Council by the Power Act. Objectives, actions and operations intended to protect, enhance and mitigate for the effects of the hydrosystem on species other than those listed as threatened or endangered may require federal agency flexibility or changes in the implementation of the biological opinions, as described below.
- Scientific and policy uncertainty continues to plague a number of mainstem actions intended to benefit anadromous fish, leading to an inability to measure the extent of the benefits gained, and to great differences of opinion as to the value of continuing these actions. Moreover, some of these actions have adverse impacts on resident fish and high costs to the power system. The mainstem plan includes provisions for how to improve the way the region engages in fish and wildlife research, power system operations, monitoring and evaluation for the mainstem, and how and what decisions are made on the basis of that information. This includes:
- describing an approach and a set of factors for prioritizing research;
- recommending specific priorities for mainstem research; and
- suggesting how to better integrate research, monitoring and evaluation results into decisions about mainstem actions and power system operations in the context of the Columbia basin as a whole.
The Council's goal is to provide recommendations to the federal hydrosystem operating agencies and fish and wildlife agencies for more biologically effective spill, flow and other mainstem operations and actions at the minimum economic cost. The Council understands the biological opinions have sufficient flexibility in implementation to accommodate recommendations of this type; that is, the biological opinions were adopted with the recognition that as new scientific information is developed, actions called for in the opinions could and, where found appropriate, would be changed.
The Council reviewed comments on the proposed vision, objectives, and strategies in the draft mainstem plan and then decided, consistent with the review procedures and standards in the Power Act, on the most appropriate mainstem vision, objectives, and strategies for both listed and non-listed species.
Another difference between this and past Council mainstem programs concerns the region's power supply requirements. The Power Act requires the Council to adopt a fish and wildlife program that not only protects, mitigates and enhances fish and wildlife but also assures that the region will continue to enjoy an adequate, efficient, economical and reliable power supply. The Council evaluated 1) current hydrosystem operations; 2) the recommendations for mainstem amendments; and 3) the October 2002 draft mainstem amendments to ensure that the adopted objectives and measures for mainstem hydrosystem operations meet the fish and wildlife requirements of the Power Act and are consistent with its power supply obligations. The Council also reviewed the latest scientific information and comments on the effectiveness of fish and wildlife strategies to increase survival of specific populations.
Energy systems, markets and policy have changed radically since the last revision of the fish and wildlife program in the mid-1990s. Federal hydrosystem operations in 2001 brought a concrete example of a problem that the Council had seen developing over the last half-decade - the electricity demands placed on the federal hydrosystem were increasingly greater than what the federal system could produce in a year of historically low runoff and river levels. Yet the dynamics of regional and west coast energy developments prevented the Bonneville Power Administration from acquiring new, long-term resources that could have closed the gap. Problems with West Coast power markets in 2000 and 2001 prevented Bonneville from being able to make up the energy deficit in those markets, leading to a situation in 2001 in which the federal agencies were forced to curtail regional load and reduce system operations intended to benefit fish and wildlife in order to maintain the reliability of the region's power system. Even with significant changes to the hydropower operations specified for fish, the system still produced inadequate energy to meet the demands of the region. This forced many of the region's utilities to curtail loads while also spending large sums to purchase power.
For these reasons, the analysis of the adequacy, efficiency, economics and reliability of the region's power supply that accompanies this mainstem plan includes consideration of the current status of the region's power system. The Council's conclusion is that the region's power system should be adequate and reliable for the next few years, due to the development of new power supplies, reductions in demand, and loss of loads that have occurred since early 2001. The objectives and measures to protect, mitigate and enhance fish and wildlife included in this mainstem plan do not affect that conclusion. The analysis also concludes, however, that the region faces the possibility in later years of spiraling back into the power supply problems seen in 2001 unless measures are taken to ensure that new resources are added to the regional power supply in a more certain fashion. The analysis suggests possible actions by the federal agencies and others in the region to ensure that the federal system provides the specified operations for fish and wildlife and meets the electricity demands in most, if not all, low-water years. The Council is reviewing and revising its 20-year power plan as called for by the Northwest Power Act. The power plan will address the region's power supply and reliability issues in more detai