Touted as a big win for fish, a plan to increase springtime spill at eight federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers was approved last week by a federal judge.
In a prepared statement, Rhett Lawrence, conservation director for the Sierra Club in Oregon, said “Increased spill levels in 2018 will provide a much-needed boost for our struggling salmon and steelhead populations.”
Liz Hamilton, the Executive Director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association (NSIA) said the decision is a “huge win” for fish and fishermen.
Spill is a term for allowing water to flow over a dam instead of passing that water through turbines that generate electrical power. Out-migrating juvenile salmon and steelhead smolts that pass through these turbines are often killed, either directly or by delayed mortality. Spill allows more smolts to escape the turbines and results in a greater return of adult fish.
Water not sent through the turbines is not producing electricity, or money.
The plan was jointly submitted by both the plaintiffs and the defendants in a long running legal dispute over the use of spill at the dams.
It was developed in response to the Court’s April 2017 Order requiring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to provide more voluntary spill.
Plaintiffs include conservation organizations, fishing associations, the Nez Perce Tribe and the State of Oregon. Defendants include the Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and NOAA Fisheries.
This decision is part of a legal dispute that goes back to 2004, when federal agencies submitted a plan for salmon and steelhead recovery. In 2006, a judge invalidated that plan and ordered that the dams begin to spill water during the spring and summer months, when the young are migrating out to sea.
Over the ensuing years the federal agencies have submitted five separate plans to the courts, but in every case, presided over by three different judges, those plans have been found to be inadequate for recovering endangered salmon and steelhead stocks within the Columbia basin.
While the defendants did join with plaintiffs in submitting the plan, they have also appealed the ruling. The appeal is on an expedited schedule and is expected to be resolved before the official beginning of the juvenile out-migration in early April.
Hamilton said the court decision, made Jan. 9 by U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon in Portland, was driven by a failure on the part of the defendants to prove their case.
“The Judge’s ruling basically said the feds were using the same arguments that they had used in the past, and had failed to sway the court,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton points to the continued court-ordered spill as the reason for the increased returns of Columbia River fall Chinook, which she said has become one of the few consistently reliable fisheries in the Pacific Northwest. This fall run drives the important and popular Buoy 10 Fishery at the mouth of the Columbia River.
The increased spill will be timed earlier, in April, to help out-migrating spring Chinook smolts and should result in better returns in years to come. The spring Chinook fishery is also very popular and is a driver of fishing license sales for the states.
While the extra spill is only set for this spring it is hoped it will become a permanent part of the yearly spill regimen.
Juvenile fish passing over spillways at Snake and Columbia River dams have higher smolt-to-adult return rates than fish that pass through powerhouses or collection systems and turbines. Collected juveniles that are trucked pass dams tend to have really dismal return rates. The costs for such operations are also prohibitive.
Effects can wipe out runs
Young salmon and steelhead from Idaho must pass through eight dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. Every dam kills a small percentage of the young fish. It is the cumulative effects that take a toll on the runs.
Data supplied by the Northwest Sportsfishing Industry Association shows this trend. Deschutes River wild steelhead must pass over two dams and return at a rate of 6.9 percent. John Day River wild Chinook must pass three dams and return at a rate of 3.5 percent. Snake River wild steelhead and Chinook must pass eight dams, and return at rates of 1.6 percent, and 0.8 percent, respectively.
Spill does not increase river flows. The same amount of water passes the dams, but it changes where that flow is directed. According to sport fisherman Buzz Ramsey of Yakima Bait, it’s the change in flow that is important.
“Salmon do not swim down to the sea,” said Ramsey. “Instead, the fish point their nose into the current and let the flow push them downstream. The fish go where the water goes.”
He explains that if the water only passes through the turbines, that is where all the fish will end up and each dam will take its toll.
More spill blocked
Spill does increase the dissolved gasses below the dams and young salmon can be affected if those gasses are too high. Washington State water standards stood in the way of increased spill for years, but the state revised its rules last fall and it now allows greater freedom.
Ramsey points out that water filled with dissolved gasses is lighter and stays near the surface. Young fish can avoid this simply by swimming deeper, which they apparently do. Monitoring shows that even at high levels of spill, Less than 1 percent of smolts are severely affected.
Even with spill the many dams along the migration route will still be killing fish. For many conservationists and fish advocates, the only real solution will be to eventually breach the Snake River dams. Many of the court decisions to date have referred to this and have suggested that if other remedies fail, breaching these dams should be on the table and could even be ordered by the court.
If the federal plans continue to fail to restore fish runs, dam breaching could one day become a reality. Until then, spill is the best option.