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8. Mainstem hydrosystem flow and passage operations

Sub-Strategy

Manage dams and reservoir operations to protect and restore ecosystem function and habitat, and to improve fish passage and survival through the hydrosystem. Analyze the power system effects of operations for fish, and recommend adaptations to the power system so that these operations may be delivered in a reliable manner while the region continues to have an adequate, economic and reliable power supply.

Rationale

The mainstem of the Columbia and Snake rivers is that central portion of the Columbia River Basin linked by systemwide water management from the headwaters into the estuary and plume and by the large structural changes related to that systemwide water management. All Columbia River Basin anadromous fish use some portion of the mainstem for juvenile migration, rearing, resting, the biophysical transition from freshwater to saltwater and adult migration. Significant populations also spawn in the mainstem, while some of the system’s most productive core populations used to spawn and rear in the mainstem but have been extirpated by the inundation and blockage of more than half of the habitat area by the development of the hydrosystem. This loss of capacity is a major consideration in the Act’s mitigation obligation. Most of the other native fish important to the program also have been affected by the mainstem hydrosystem development and systemwide water management, including sturgeon in both the upper and lower Columbia River Basin, lamprey, and bull trout. The program’s mainstem measures also benefit these species.

System operations for multiple purposes have a direct impact on fish habitat and overall fish survival, compromising habitat conditions for spawning, rearing, resting, and migration. For more than 30 years, the program measures have altered system operations for the benefit of improved habitat conditions and fish passage survival. As relevant to listed species, these measures have largely been incorporated into FCRPS biological opinions. The Council’s program also adds important consideration to the benefit of non-listed anadromous and resident species affected by hydrosystem operations. The region is also looking to the Council’s program to investigate the potential for additional gains in ecosystem function and floodplain connectivity.

Principles

  • Native fish benefit from flow, passage and habitat conditions that best fit natural behavior patterns of these fish and the physical and biological conditions they need to thrive.
  • Where there are demonstrated benefits for fish, manage water to more closely approximate natural flow patterns in terms of quantity, quality, and timing to promote productive populations of anadromous and resident fish.
  • Biological diversity is promoted by managing hydrosystem operations to minimize the artificial selection or limitation of life history traits.
  • As a starting point, in-river passage and water quality conditions should be improved consistent with the biological objectives of this program, the performance standards of the FCRPS biological opinions, and state and federal water quality standards under the Clean Water Act.
  • The program is broader than the Endangered Species Act both in terms of species affected by the hydrosystem and the ultimate objective of the program that goes beyond just delisting endangered species. This strategy is thus designed to protect a broader range of species and their habitat, potentially utilizing different biological objectives.
  • The Council assumes that, in the near term, the breaching of dams in the mainstem Columbia and Snake rivers will not occur.
  • When recommending operational changes for fish and wildlife, the Council must consider the adequacy, efficiency, economics, and reliability of the power system.
  • The Council’s intent is to ensure more resilient and healthy ecosystem-based function throughout the mainstem Columbia and Snake rivers while: (a) maintaining an acceptable level of flood risk; (b) assuring adequate, reliable, and economic hydropower benefits and; (c) recognizing and implementing the other authorized purposes of the individual dams of the Columbia River system.

General measures

  • The federal action agencies shall provide streamflows with appropriate timing, quantity, and water quality to promote productive populations of anadromous and resident fish, provide reservoir conditions to promote productive populations of native fish and wildlife, and manage water to protect and improve habitat conditions for all fish affected by the hydrosystem, not just listed species.
  • The federal action agencies, in collaboration with state, federal, and tribal fish agencies, shall (1) design mainstem fish passage actions to protect biological diversity by benefitting a broad range of species, stocks, and life-history types, not just listed species and not just salmon and steelhead, and (2) favor solutions that best fit natural behavior patterns and river processes and increase the likelihood of adult returns. To meet the diverse needs of multiple species and allow for uncertainty, multiple passage methods are necessary at individual projects.
  • The water management and fish passage actions, flow objectives, and passage standards in the current biological opinions under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act and in the Columbia Basin Fish Accords are the baseline flow and passage measures for the Council’s program.[1]
  • The federal action agencies should collaborate with the Council, state, federal, and tribal fish agencies and the utilities before implementing flow and passage measures to protect habitat and improve survival of species not covered in the biological opinions including, for example, upper Columbia River summer and fall Chinook, upper Columbia sockeye, sturgeon, lamprey, and resident fish. The Council may convene a science/policy forum to investigate whether the baseline flow and passage operations in the FCRPS biological opinions are optimum for the needs of the non-listed fish important to the Council’s program.
  • Following the principles of adaptive management, the federal action agencies, in collaboration with the Council, state, federal, and tribal fish agencies and the utilities, shall continue to investigate, develop, and implement flow and passage measures that improve  fish life-cycle survival.
  • The Fish Passage Center provides technical assistance and information to the region’s fish and wildlife agencies and tribes, and the public, on matters relating to the program’s flow and passage measures. NOAA Fisheries and its Northwest Fisheries Science Center, the Corps, the Columbia River Data Access in Real Time (DART) Center at the University of Washington, the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, and other entities also contribute and house information relevant to the implementation of the program’s mainstem measures.

    The FPC Oversight Board will annually review the FPC’s performance and help assure regional accountability, data management compatibility, and program consistency. The Fish Passage Center functions include:
    • Assemble, organize, make publicly available, and maintain the primary archive of the smolt monitoring program data
    • Participate in the development of the annual smolt monitoring program implementation plan, and assist in the implementation of the program
    • Assemble, organize and make publicly accessible, data from other primary sources, and conduct analyses as requested to meet the information needs of the fish and wildlife agencies, tribes, and public with respect to water management, spill, and fish passage
    • Provide technical information necessary to assist the agencies and tribes in formulating in-season flow and spill requests that implement the measures in the Council’s program, while also assisting the agencies and tribes in making sure that operating criteria for storage reservoirs are satisfied
    • Provide the technical assistance necessary to coordinate recommendations for storage reservoir and river operations that, to the extent possible, avoid potential conflicts between anadromous and resident fish
    • Archive and make publicly accessible the data used in developing all analytical results, associating the specific data with the respective analyses

Specific flow measures

  • Hanford Reach fall Chinook. The federal action agencies, in collaboration with the state, federal, and tribal agencies and the Mid-Columbia Public Utility Districts (PUDs), shall continue to reliably implement operations to protect spawning and emergence of fall Chinook in the Hanford Reach, consistent with the 2004 Hanford Reach Fall Chinook Protection Program Agreement. The parties to the agreement should report to the Council periodically to assure flow measures continue to be effective in protecting fall Chinook redds and juveniles from flow and river elevation fluctuations.
  • Libby and Hungry Horse operations. The Council continues to support the federal action agencies’ current reservoir operations at Libby and Hungry Horse dams as set forth in the relevant biological opinions. These include VARQ as well as spring and summer operations developed as part of the 2003 Mainstem Amendments. The Council encourages the action agencies to remove any reference to these operations as “experimental” in future biological opinions. The Council supports continued investigations to refine operations at Libby and Hungry Horse dams that improve conditions for fish near those reservoirs and do not adversely affect fish in the lower river, e.g., actions that help reservoir refill, reduce the potential for uncontrolled spill, reduce downstream flooding, and make operations mutually beneficial for the United States and Canada. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks should continue working with the pertinent parties to discuss proposals for adjustments to winter and spring operations at Libby and Hungry Horse dams including consideration of the potential impacts of winter operations at Libby Dam (including winter power peaking) on the recovery of native fish species, the food web, and fish and wildlife habitat restoration efforts, and mitigate for those impacts if necessary. The Council will assist in these discussions as necessary. Any significant findings or proposed changes should be reported to the Council.
  • Albeni Falls Dam. To benefit native fish, the Corps shall investigate infrastructure changes at Albeni Falls Dam and habitat enhancements in areas impacted by the dam.
  • Grand Coulee Dam operations. The Council calls on the Bureau and NOAA Fisheries to work with the relevant federal and state fish and wildlife agencies and tribes to evaluate alternative operations and report back to the Council. The following principles should guide this evaluation:
    • Explore the optimum operations at Grand Coulee to provide improved conditions and survival for all the fish important to the program, including salmon and steelhead migration and rearing needs in the lower Columbia River, Hanford Reach fall Chinook spawning and emergence, and resident species in the reservoir that are critical to mitigation needs of the Spokane Tribe and others, including operations in the fall and winter that protect kokanee access and spawning.
    • Refilling the reservoirs by the end of June remains a high priority.
    • As much as possible within current operating constraints, manage the reservoir and dam discharges to minimize fluctuations and ramping rates and produce steady flows across each season and each day.
    • Hells Canyon Complex project operations. Idaho Power Company’s Hells Canyon hydropower complex, consisting of three hydroelectric projects on the mainstem Snake River, is currently undergoing Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) re-licensing and ESA Section 7 consultation. The Council will review the outcome of the FERC proceeding and, as appropriate, include in the program relevant provisions recognizing the operations to benefit fish below the Hells Canyon Complex as part of the baseline flow measures of the program.
    • Investigate the potential to further improve ecosystem function and floodplain connectivity. The federal action agencies, in collaboration with state, federal, tribal agencies, and others, should continue to investigate and adjust system water management to improve ecosystem functions in the mainstem, estuary, and plume, with an emphasis on improvements in the following areas:
      • Reconnected floodplains related to river flows
      • Enhanced Columbia River plume and near-shore ocean habitat
      • Reduced salt water intrusion during summer and fall
      • Fewer and shorter hypoxia and acidification events in the estuary
      • Lower summer water temperatures
    Elements of a coordinated approach should include:
    • Continued investigations into how to best regulate river flows to enhance floodplain connections
    • Further develop the methods to assess the extent of physical and biological benefits that could be gained from changes in flows, floodplain connections, and flood-risk management
    • Improvements in hydrodynamic modeling, mapping and investigations into sediment transport and budgets
    • Periodic assessment of how flow operations might be modified to capitalize on what is learned from the investigations recommended above
    • Continued search for alternative methods of flood risk management in high-value areas to reduce the demands on upriver storage and better balance the allocation of risk, costs, impacts, and benefits

Specific fish passage measures

  • Passage at Mid-Columbia PUD dams. The program’s baseline passage measures and objectives include the passage actions and performance standards identified and agreed to by the operators of the Mid-Columbia PUD projects in FERC licenses and associated agreements.
  • Juvenile fish passage. To maintain and improve juvenile fish passage survival, the Corps, in collaboration with state, federal, and tribal fish agencies shall select the most biologically effective combination of passage routes at each mainstem dam (including a spill level that does not exceed interim TDG standards or variances) which, when combined with other passage routes, maximizes juvenile fish survival and minimizes adult fish migration and fallback problems. In this effort, the Corps and its partners should:
    • Continue to refine the operation of surface bypass systems at all federal mainstem dams. The focus should be on developing the most effective training-spill patterns at mainstem dams to improve juvenile fish passage and survival while not affecting adult passage. Surface passage structures and outlets are important tools to achieve the dual goals of safe juvenile fish passage and long-term compliance with Clean Water Act total dissolved gas standards.
    • Relocate juvenile fish bypass outfalls in those circumstances where there are problems with predation, tailrace egress, or other factors contributing to juvenile fish injury or mortality.
    • Install new, fish-friendly turbines or optimize turbine operations to improve juvenile fish survival.
    • Continue to investigate ways to reduce descaling of juvenile sockeye.
  • Spill. When making decisions regarding the timing and amount of spill, the federal action agencies should give priority to actions that (1) minimize impacts on returning adult fish; and (2) optimize in-river passage survival benefits for focal species, with particular emphasis on those species that cannot be or are not effectively transported.
  • Spill and other passage experiments. The Council continues to recognize the value of an experimental approach to salmon recovery in the Northwest. The Council supports the development of adaptive management experiments that address critical uncertainties related to species survival.
    Proposals for such experiments must be based on the best available science, have appropriate study designs, be subject to review by the independent science panels, and address issues raised by independent scientific review and peer review. Proposed experiments will also need the necessary regulatory approvals consistent with all federal and state laws. This includes approval by the agencies with jurisdiction over the Endangered Species Act (as spill affects listed species) and the Clean Water Act. Experiments should not pose unnecessary risks to salmonids or other aquatic life in the Columbia River. And finally, the Council will take into account the compatibility of an experiment with other research taking place and future fish passage improvements at the dams in the Columbia Basin as well as the effect on the adequacy, efficiency, economics, and reliability of the power system.
    Further work on proposals for mainstem spill experiments should fully engage the technical expertise in the region, including scientists from NOAA Fisheries, state fish and wildlife agencies, tribes, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, other federal agencies, the independent science panels, and others. The Council is interested in seeing future proposals for improving spill and other mainstem operations that meet these criteria and contain all the elements of a viable experiment as identified by the ISAB in report 2014-2.
  • Juvenile fish transportation. The Council recognizes the need to transport migrating juvenile salmon and steelhead under certain river conditions. The Council accepts this strategy as a means to achieve its biological objectives, where there are demonstrated benefits for fish. Implement juvenile fish transportation following adaptive management principles that consider and respond to new evidence regarding the relative life-cycle survival benefits when compared to in-river migration. Evaluation should include transportation effects on adult stray rates and the impacts of straying.
  • Adult fish passage. The Corps, in collaboration with the state, federal agencies and tribes, should continue to implement improvements to the adult fish passage facilities at mainstem dams to benefit salmon and steelhead, Pacific lamprey, white sturgeon, and bull trout. In particular, cool water releases from storage reservoirs should continue to be used to facilitate adult migration. Emphasis should also be placed on research, monitoring, and evaluation; increased accuracy of fish counts; assessment of conversion rates of all adult fish species of interest, including lamprey, through key mainstem reaches; installation of PIT-tag and radio-tag detectors; evaluation of escapement numbers to spawning grounds and hatcheries; research into water temperature and spill effects on fish passage; and the connection between fish passage design and fish behavior. In particular:
    • As a priority for the Corps’ capital construction program, implement structural improvements to correct adult fish-passage problems or improve reliability of adult passage facilities and report to the Council on progress
    • Install adult PIT-tag detectors at key mainstem projects or near the mouths of major tributaries that do not have them
    • Improve fish-counting accuracy and utilize known-origin PIT-tagged fish to evaluate adult survival (conversion rates) through key reaches of the mainstem Snake and Columbia rivers
    • Investigate the use of, or need for, surface flow outlets during the winter months to provide a safer fallback route for over-wintering steelhead and kelts

Power system considerations

  • The Council will work with federal and non-federal operating agencies, federal and state fish and wildlife agencies and tribes to review, update, and implement procedures that accommodate power system and dam operation emergencies with the least impact on listed and non-listed fish and with consideration of protection, mitigation, and recovery objectives.
  • Fish survival emergencies may require operations that temporarily reduce or curtail power production, which should be implemented in the most cost-effective manner possible by the federal action agencies and non-federal project operators.
  • The Council will investigate cost-effective power system strategies that improve ecosystem conditions for fish and wildlife, relax operational constraints adverse to fish and wildlife, and ensure the regional power system remains adequate, reliable, and economical

[1] The relevant biological opinions are:

See Columbia Basin Fish Accords.

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