NW Scientists Make the Case for
by Cassandra Profita
On Wednesday, dozens of scientists made their case for spilling more water over dams in the Columbia River Basin.
In a letter sent to Northwest lawmakers in Congress, they outlined and "reaffirmed" scientific evidence that more spill is critical to protecting threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead.
Earlier this year, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon ordered Columbia River dam managers to spill more water by 2018 to help fish protected under the Endangered Species Act.
But several Northwest lawmakers are aiming to block that order with a bill they've introduced in Congress. Spilling more water over dams reduces the amount of hydropower produced and raises the price of electricity.
The federal legislation is primarily intended to prevent the removal of four Snake River dams, but it would also overturn Judge Simon's order for more spill.
Now, it appears 47 Northwest scientists are pushing back against that effort.
"Some in the region have questioned the value of spill in reducing the risk to threatened and endangered fish associated with passage through the federal hydro system," their letter states. "This letter summarizes existing science on the topic and unequivocally supports expanded spill as an effective near-term measure to better protect ESA-listed populations."
David Cannamela, a retired Idaho fisheries biologist and one of the signatories of the letter, said science shows young salmon need a flowing river to make it to the ocean.
"The judges have made it clear they're reading the science correctly: Flow is necessary to get those fish out," he said. "The best available option for ensuring safe passage for these juvenile salmonids is spill, which is one action we can take that makes the river more like a river and less like a pond."
In their letter, the scientists argue threatened and endangered fish need as much spill as the law allows -- and maybe even more -- as soon as possible. They advocate for an experiment that would increase spill above the legal limit for the amount of gases that are allowed in the water so scientists can study the effects on fish.
Total dissolved gas limits are designed to prevent harmful impacts to fish, but the scientists argue testing those limits is "fully justifiable today, from a scientific perspective."
Spill Advocates, Federal Agencies Agree To Status Conference Schedule, Protocol In Salmon BiOp Case by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin 5/19/17
Federal Court Again Rejects Columbia Basin Salmon/Steelhead Recovery Plan; Orders New BiOp By 2018 by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin 5/6/17
Appeal Filed Over Spill Decision in 2008-2014 BiOp Case by Laura Berg, NW Fishletter, 7/3/17
Federal Agencies Give Notice of Possible Appeal of Court Ruling Providing Earlier Spill for Fish by Staff, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 4/7/17
Court Orders More Spill, Allows Spending at Lower Snake River Dams by Laura Berg, NW Fishletter, 4/3/17
Judge Orders Increased Spill at Eight Pacific Northwest Dams Starting in 2018 by Elizabeth Ingram, HydroWorld, 3/29/17
Judge Orders More Water Over Dams to Help NW Salmon by Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service, 3/29/17
Judge: More Water Must Be Released from Columbia, Snake Dams by Associated Press, The Register-Guard, 3/27/17
A customized version of the below letter was sent to Northwest policymakers on August 16, 2017. It is signed by 47 regional scientists and communicates the benefits of – and the scientists' support for – increased spring and summer spill (water releases over federal dams on the lower Columbia and lower Snake Rivers) to improve survival of out-migrating endangered juvenile salmon and steelhead populations. Spill represents a critical immediate, interim salmon restoration tool available to policymakers and state/federal/tribal managers while the people of the Northwest develop a legally valid, scientifically credible Columbia Snake River Basin Salmon Plan or Biological Opinion over the next several years, as ordered by the U.S. District Court in Portland in 2016.
August 16, 2017
Dear Northwest Policymaker,
In this letter, the undersigned scientists and fishery managers reaffirm the benefits of spill for salmon and steelhead of the Snake/Columbia River Basin, as an essential interim measure awaiting a legally valid, scientifically credible longterm plan. Specifically, we support an immediate increase in spill levels to benefit Snake/Columbia fish, for reasons described more fully below. Increased spill allows more juvenile salmon to pass dams safely via spillways, rather than passing through powerhouses or bypass plumbing. With existing dams in place, spill offers the best potential to improve life cycle survival. This is an essential near-term step for at-risk salmon runs pending the conclusion of the ongoing court-ordered review and development of a new plan, now underway. We support an immediate increase in spill to the highest biologically safe Total Dissolved Gas levels allowed by current environmental regulations; additionally, we also support an adaptive management experiment that expands spring spill levels to 125% of total dissolved gas (TDG), with testable hypotheses and appropriate monitoring of salmon and steelhead responses. Both are fully justified today, from a scientific perspective.
Since a U.S. District Court in Portland ruled earlier this year in favor of expanded spill beginning in 2018, some in the region have questioned the value of spill in reducing the risk to threatened and endangered fish associated with passage through the federal hydro-system. This letter summarizes existing science on the topic and unequivocally supports expanded spill as an effective near-term measure to better protect ESA-listed populations.
Development of the Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS) transformed a free-flowing river system into a series of reservoirs and dams, dramatically impacting native salmon and steelhead. The Columbia River salmonid ecosystem, prior to development, was a network of complex interconnected habitats that had been created, periodically altered, and maintained by natural physical processes (ISG 1999; Williams 2006) and passage to and from natal habitats for anadromous fish was unimpeded. Now, the developed Columbia River ecosystem bears little resemblance to a natural river, and juvenile salmon and steelhead face obstacles of reduced water velocity, dangerously warm water in reservoirs, increased predation, migration delays, mortality, injury and stresses during dam passage. In many cases, additional stresses are introduced by handling and collection of juveniles for transportation. These factors directly and indirectly reduce survival rates during seaward migration and in delayed mortality that occurs in the ocean environment e.g., (Budy et al. 2002, Scheuerell et al. 2009, Van Gaest et al. 2011).
Since FCRPS completion in the 1970s, the abundance and productivity of Snake River salmon – historically almost half of the Columbia basin's entire spring/summer chinook and steelhead run – has declined dramatically. All native anadromous salmonids in the Snake River were listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) during the 1990s. The ESA listings were necessary despite a number of "technological fixes" undertaken in prior years to mitigate hydrosystem impacts, including screening of turbine entrances and collecting and transporting juvenile salmon (primarily barging) around dams and through slackwater reservoirs.
The Northwest Power and Conservation Council, in its Fish and Wildlife Program (NPCC 2014) has established a goal of achieving smolt-to-adult survival rates (SARs) of 2% - 6% (4% average) for listed Snake and Columbia River salmon and steelhead. Since the late 1990s SARs have averaged only 0.9% for Snake River wild spring/summer Chinook and 1.6% for Snake River wild steelhead, well short of even the minimum regional goal (McCann et al. 2016). Collecting and transporting (barging) juvenile salmon and steelhead around dams has also failed to compensate for the impacts of the FCRPS (McCann et al. 2016), despite implementing this strategy for decades.
Peer-reviewed literature indicates that life-cycle survival of Snake River spring/summer Chinook salmon and steelhead is related to both freshwater juvenile passage conditions and ocean conditions (Schaller and Petrosky 2007, Petrosky and Schaller 2010, Haeseker et al. 2012, Schaller et al. 2014). These analyses support the NPCC (2014) direction to explore the potential to improve life-cycle survival through new strategies for hydrosystem management and operations, while considering variation in marine conditions (ISAB 2013-1). Independent analyses of long-term (50 year) run-reconstruction and recent (1998-2015) PIT-tag data sets identified similar fresh water passage variables and ocean variables that characterize variation in life-cycle survival. Freshwater passage variables that positively influence survival include high water velocity (low water transit time) and higher spill, which helps smolts avoid dam powerhouses. With existing dams in place, spill offers the best potential to improve life-cycle survival. Only dam removals offer more benefits for salmon. Fishery biologists widely accept that providing more natural habitat conditions (e.g., a "normative river"; ISG 1999; Williams 2006) is essential to restoring salmon and steelhead in the Snake and Columbia rivers. Factors in restoring more "normative" passage conditions would include reducing the time required for juveniles to reach saltwater, passing more juveniles over dam spillways, speeding passage through reservoirs, and reducing juvenile collection and transportation (barging).
Last year, federal Judge Michael Simon of the U.S. District Court in Portland ruled that current operation of the FCRPS causes continued irreparable harm to imperiled salmon and steelhead and ordered the federal agencies responsible for managing fish, water, and power in the Columbia Basin to prepare a new analysis that complies with the law and moves wild salmon and steelhead populations toward recovery. The court has given the agencies until 2021 to complete this process. During this interim period, increasing spill at FCRPS dams is critical to the near-term protection and survival of Snake River salmon and steelhead, and other Columbia Basin species.
The groundwork has been laid for increasing spill above the levels allowed by current state water quality standards, and certainly at least to those levels, in recent work by the interagency Comparative Survival Study (CSS) coordinated by the Fish Passage Center. The CSS (2017) took advantage of retrospective analyses of independent data sets relating salmon and steelhead survival rates to freshwater passage conditions and ocean conditions (Petrosky and Schaller 2010, Haeseker et al. 2012, Schaller et al. 2014) and modeled likely responses to alternative future spill scenarios. Key findings include:
Regardless of future decisions about dam management, including consideration of dam removal, increased spill holds immediate potential to provide substantial survival benefits for Snake and Columbia River salmon, and to provide important information for future policy and action. Increased spill would benefit all Interior Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead populations, including those in Oregon and Washington State that enter the Columbia mainstem below the Snake River confluence.
- Modeling the effects of increased spill levels (up to 125% Total Dissolved Gas (TDG) predicted the potential for significant improvement in juvenile fish travel times, in-river survival, ocean/marine survival, SARs and life-cycle survival of Snake River spring/summer Chinook and steelhead (CSS 2017).
- Increasing spill for fish passage up to safe limits of 125% TDG has a high probability of increasing SARs and may be capable of meeting regional 2-6% SAR goals. Increased spill is also predicted to lower the probability of extremely low SARs, thus reducing the extinction risk for ESA-listed populations (CSS 2017).
- Historical migration monitoring data indicate that spill for fish passage up to the 125% TDG level does not result in adverse conditions for downstream migration of juvenile salmon and steelhead. Currently, the State of Oregon allows spill to 120% TDG in tailrace monitors, and the State of Washington allows spill to 115% TDG in forebay/120% tailrace monitors (CSS 2017). Efforts are underway to align these standards in time for the 2018 outmigration, with a uniform 120% TDG limit.
- The modeling supports immediate implementation of spill for juvenile passage at the levels currently allowed and indicates that a large-scale adaptive management spring spill experiment across the FCRPS of up to 125% TDG is scientifically warranted. The monitoring structure to support this effort is already in place: current fish marking/tagging levels appear sufficient to monitor the effects of experimental spill management on Snake River spring/summer Chinook and steelhead (CSS 2017).
The undersigned members of the scientific community support an immediate increase in spill levels as discussed above as a well-documented benefit for the salmon and steelhead of the Snake/Columbia Basin. It is an essential benefit for at-risk salmon runs pending the conclusion of the ongoing court-ordered review and development of a new plan. Therefore, we support immediate increases in spill to the highest biologically safe TDG levels allowed by current environmental regulations, and in an adaptive management experiment, we support expanding spring spill to 125% TDG, with testable hypotheses and appropriate monitoring of salmon and steelhead responses.
Jack E. Williams, Ph.D.
Doctorate, Fisheries Science, Oregon State University
Senior Scientist, Trout Unlimited
Chris A. Walser, Ph.D.
Doctorate, Biology, Tulane University
Chair, Natural Sciences and Mathematics, The College of Idaho Caldwell, Idaho
Roger Rosentreter, Ph.D
Doctorate, Ecology, University of Montana
Botanist, Bureau of Land Management, retired Boise, Idaho
Rick Williams, Ph.D.
Doctorate, Conservation Biology, University of Brigham Young Research Associate, Department of Biology
The College of Idaho
Don W. Chapman, Ph.D.
Doctorate, Fisheries, Oregon State University
Fisheries Biologist for University of Idaho, United Nations, and as independent consultant
Keith A. Johnson, Ph.D.
Doctorate, Pathogenic Microbiology, Oregon State University
Chief of Sockeye fish culture, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, retired
Helen Neville, Ph.D.
Evolutionary Biology and Ecology, University of Nevada-Reno
Director of Research and Science Partnerships, Trout Unlimited
Jonathan Rosenfield, Ph.D.
Doctorate, Fisheries Sciences, University of New Mexico
David C. Burns, Ph.D.
Doctorate, Fisheries Science Fisheries Scientist Emeritus
Roy Heberger, M.S.
Master of Science, Fisheries/Aquatic Ecology, University of Michigan U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, retired
Jim Martin, M.S.
Master of Science, Fisheries, Oregon State University
Chief of Fisheries, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, retired
John R. McMillan, M.S.
Master of Science, Fisheries and Wildlife, Oregon State University
Science Director, Trout Unlimited Wild Steelhead Initiative
Port Angeles, Washington
Paul Sankovich, M.S.
Master of Science, Fisheries, University of Idaho Fisheries Biologist
La Grande, Oregon
Kent Ball, M.S.
Master of Science, Fisheries, University of Wisconsin
Fisheries Biologist, salmon and steelhead research/management, IDFG, retired
Brian Brooks, M.S.
Master of Science Natural Resources, University of Idaho Restoration Ecologist
Roger Wolcott, M.S.
Master of Science, Fisheries Biology, University of Washington
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/National Marine Fisheries Service, retired
William Goodnight, M.S.
Master of Science, Fisheries, University of Idaho
Fisheries Scientist, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, retired
Gary Gadwa, M.S.
Master of Science, Wildlife and Fisheries Resources, University of Idaho
Wildlife and Fisheries Biologist, Idaho Department of Fish and Game
David A. Cannamela, M.S.
Master of Science, Aquatic Science, Murray State University/Idaho State University
Fisheries Research Biologist/Fisheries Biologist, Idaho Dept. Fish & Game, retired
Rodney W. Sando, M.S.
Master of Science, Fisheries, University of Idaho
Former Chief of Natural Resources, Minnesota
Former Executive Director, Columbia Basin Fish & Wildlife Authority
Director, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, retired
Bill Shake, M.S.
Master of Science, Wildlife Biology, Western Illinois University
Former Assistant Director of Fisheries, USFWS, Portland Regional Office
Special Assistant to the Regional Director on Columbia River salmon, retired
Russ Thurow, M.S.
Master of Science, Fisheries Resources, Univ. of Idaho and Univ. of Wisconsin, Stevens Point
Micah Scholer, M.S.
Master of Science, Natural Resources, Boise State University
Saint Cloud, Minnesota
Eric Willadsen, M.S.
Master of Science, Natural Resource Management, University of Idaho
Riparian and Rangeland Restoration Ecologist
Bert Bowler. M.S.
Master of Science, Fisheries, University of Idaho
Fisheries Biologist, Snake River Salmon Solutions
Kurt Fesenmyer, M.S.
Master of Science, Environmental Management and Forestry, Duke University
Director, GIS and Conservation Planning, Trout Unlimited
Andre E. Kohler, M.S.
Master's of Science, Stream Ecology, Washington State University
Aquatic Biologist/Salmon River Basin Program Manager
Department of Fish and Wildlife, Shoshone-Bannock Tribes
Fort Hall, Idaho
Scott Bosse, M.S.
Master of Science, Environmental Studies, University of Montana
Clark Watry, M.S.
Master of Science from University of Idaho
Project Leader – Research Division
Dept. of Fisheries Resource Mgmt., Nez Perce Tribe
Andrew Hill, M.S.
Master of Science, Watershed Sciences, Utah State University
Master of Science, Ecology, Colorado State University
Natural Resources Specialist
Alison Weber-Stover, M.S.
Master of Science, Ecology, University of California Davis
Kerry Overton, M.S.
Master of Science, Fisheries Biology, Idaho State University
Daniel M. Herrig, M.S.
Master of Science, Fisheries, Oregon State University
Fish Program Manager, retired
Rebecca Fritz, M.S.
Master of Science, Fisheries, Northern Arizona University (expected 2018) Sandpoint, Idaho
Stephen Pettit, M.S.
Master of Science, Zoology, University of Idaho
Fisheries Research Biologist, Idaho Fish and Game, retired
Kimberly A. Apperson, M.S.
Masters of Science, Zoology, University of Idaho
Richard Howard, M.S.
Master of Science, Wildlife Ecology, Utah State University
Biologist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, retired
Robert House, B.S.
Bachelor of Science, Fisheries, University of Washington
Doug Taki, B.S.
Bachelor of Science, Biology, Idaho State University
Fisheries Biologist, Chinook/Sockeye Program Manager, Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, retired
Former Chair, Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority
William D. Horton, B.S.
Bachelor of Science, Fisheries Management
State Fisheries Manager, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, retired
Bachelor of Science, Natural Resources, Humboldt State University
Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, retired
Mike Kochert, M.S.
Master of Science,
Research Wildlife Biologist, USGS retired
Ryan Santo, B.S.
Bachelor of Science, Fisheries & Aquaculture,
Data Management Project Leader
James Esch, B.S.
Bachelor of Science, Fisheries, Oregon State University
National Marine Fisheries Service; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, retired
Brian Ayers, B.S.
Bachelor of Science, Biology, Fort Lewis College
Fisheries Researcher, Pacific States Marine Fisheries Council
Charles D. Branch
Fisheries Biologist and Hydrology Technician, retired
Coeur d'Alene, Idaho
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