One of the most remarkable outcomes in discussions to modernize the Columbia River Treaty is whether to embrace the support anadromous salmon and other fish once again migrating the Columbiapast Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee Dams and into Canada.
To further the discussion, last Fevruary Columbia Basin tribes and Canadian First Nations jointly released a proposal providing a path forward. In the near term, the proposal calls for "...a series of preliminary planning, research, and experimental pilot studies designed to inform subsequent reintroduction and passage strategies." In the long term, think next generation, imagine chinook, sockeye, steelhead and other species making their way through fish passage facilities, finding suitable habitat and flows, and restoring their place in the life cycle that existed for thousand of years.
Based on feedback, the proposal was updated and distributed in time for the October transboundary Columbia River Basin Conference.
The Northwest Power and Conservation Council has taken a very significant step toward the vision of reintroducing salmon and steehead above Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee Dams. October adoption of their 2014 Fish & Wildlife Program, which directs more than $250 million per year to mitigate the impacts of hydropower dams on fish and wildlife in the Columbia River Basin, calls for studies to investigate passage and reintroduction of these fish that previously traveled to and fro the Pacific before these two dams were built.
The Council envisions a phased approach that begins next year with studies to:
• evaluate what's been learned from other blocked passages as well as previous passage assessments for reintroduction into the Upper Columbia;
• investigate habitat and other needs necessary for survival;
• consider the costs and feasibility of possible upstream and downstream passage options.
This approach is similar to a proposal from Columbi Basin tribes and Canadian First Nations (see above article). When studies are completed by the end of 2016, the Council will consider how to best proceed. Said Tom Karaier, Washington Council Member, "The Council has adecided to pursue a science-based approach as we investigate the feasibility of reintroduction."
This is a bad decision for the Columbia River, bad for taxpayers, and bad energy policy. In its decision, both the State and the Bureau failed to look at the impacts of climate change and the impending rewrite of the U.S. Treaty with Canada over the Columbia River. The parties also failed to consider how drawdown will uncover massive pollution lying on the banks of Lake Roosevelt, caused by Teck Cominco's Trail, B.C. zinc-smelter, further exposing the public to toxic chemicals during peak recreational use.
The drawdown is also intended to provide water for municipalities, industries, supplement junior water rights, and augment instream flows in the Columbia River.
Washington State claims a fish benefit that is fictional: the Department of Ecology's own analysis acknowledges that the amount of water released for fish will be imperceptible.
In 2004, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report on Columbia River water management, specifically recommending that water agencies avoid issuing new permanent water rights from the River in order to maintain flexibility to manage water flows for endangered salmon. Both Washington state and the Bureau are ignoring the NAS recommendations in making this water transfer proposal.
The Columbia Basin Project (CBP) is a USBR irrigation project that diverts water from the Columbia River at Lake Roosevelt and distributes it to about 650,000 acres of agricultural lands between Grand Coulee and the Tri-Cities. The CBP is the largest all-federal irrigation project in the United States. Massive subsidies are required to pump water to CBP irrigators, including taxpayer support for the cost of the project and Bonneville Power ratepayer subsidies for the energy required to pump water from Lake Roosevelt into Banks Lake, as well as foregone hydropower downstream.
The economic loss of this water project is evidenced in a 1987 GAO study that estimated the cost-benefit for the project to be 2 cents on the dollar.
In 2006 Washington State created the Columbia River Water Management Program to study new dams and other options to increase water supply, including taking more water from Lake Roosevelt behind Grand Coulee Dam. In addition to the drawdown proposal, the state is paying the Bureau of Reclamation to study bringing water to 140,000 acres in the Odessa Subarea. A November 2007 estimate of just the construction costs is $2-$6 billion. The annual costs of operating the project, especially the power costs, would raise the total considerably.
In June CELP released a report by economist Dr. Joel Hamilton, retired University of Idaho professor of economics, that debunks the economic benefits claimed by the Bureau and Washington State to justify the project. (Hamilton Economic Analysis)
CELP noted that here would be no shortage of water in eastern Washington if people paid what the water is worth -- even just the energy costs. CELP is considering challenging these water rights.
Because of huge cost and energy losses in the 1980s, the State of Washington and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation abandoned plans to expand "Project water" to the Odessa. A GAO investigation showed losses could be as bad as 98 cents out of every dollar.
The state Department of Ecology also approved $46 million for water storage and conservation projects throughout Eastern Washington.
Both steps stem from a 2006 bill approved by the Legislature to find new water supplies for growing communities in the region, improve water supplies during times of drought, and increase stream flows to help salmon survive late in summer.
As part of that bill, the state proposed drawing down Lake Roosevelt, behind Grand Coulee Dam, by as much as 132,500 acre-feet. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to cover 1 acre to a depth of 1 foot, or about 325,850 gallons.
One-third of that water will remain in the river for fish, and one-third will be used for new municipal and industrial water rights along the Columbia. The rest will provide surface irrigation for 10,000 acres of crops east of Moses Lake, where farmers have been relying on well water from the declining Odessa Aquifer, and to provide a more stable water supply for irrigators whose water rights are interrupted in drought years.
"For more than a decade, we've been at a stalemate," Gov. Chris Gregoire said in a statement. "Today we have broken that stalemate. We are writing a new chapter on how water will be managed in the West. We're making sure water is there when it's needed most - for people and fish."
The decision immediately drew criticism from at least one environmental group.
Rachael Paschal Osborne, director of the Center for Environmental Law and Policy, said the state and federal governments failed to look at the impacts of climate change and an impending rewrite of a treaty with Canada over the Columbia River.
"They also failed to consider how drawing down Lake Roosevelt will uncover pollution from an upstream zinc smelter in British Columbia, she said.
"This is a bad decision for the Columbia River, bad for taxpayers, and bad energy policy," she said.
The 2006 Legislature approved $200 million for conservation and water delivery improvement and storage projects across Eastern Washington. Of that, the $46 million announced Thursday will pay for a variety of projects, from making existing water delivery systems more efficient to storing water both above and below ground and recharging declining aquifers.
Bill McDonald, Pacific Northwest regional director for the federal Bureau of Reclamation, and state Ecology Director Jay Manning praised environmental groups, irrigators, municipalities and counties for creating a coalition that compromised and changed attitudes about water rights.
This 20-year war, where people's outlook was, 'I am going to win and the other side will lose,' everybody loses," Manning said. "That's what water has been about, at least in Washington, certainly in Eastern Washington."
The state reached agreement with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and the Spokane Tribe of Indians, whose reservations border the lake, on payment for tribal costs of the drawdown. The Colvilles will get about $3.75 million a year and the Spokanes $2.25 million a year to enhance fisheries, protect the environment, preserve cultural resources and other activities. The money is not considered payment for the water.
In addition, local governments around Lake Roosevelt will receive $2 million to cover effects from the releases.
State and federal authorities continue to study the potential for large, off-channel reservoirs to store water from the Columbia River, including the proposed Black Rock reservoir in the lower Yakima Valley and Crab Creek Reservoir in Grant County.
The NAS recommendations include:
• Columbia River salmon today are at a critical point. … Further decreases in flows or increases in water temperature are likely to reduce survival rates. Trends such as human population growth in the region and prospective regional climate warming further increase risks regarding salmon survival.
• Decisions regarding the issue of additional water withdrawal permits are matters of public policy, but if additional permits are issued, they should include specific conditions that allow withdrawals to be discontinued during critical periods. Allowing for additional withdrawals during the critical periods of high demand, low flows, and comparatively high water temperatures identified in this report would increase risks of survivability to listed salmon stocks and would reduce management flexibility during these periods.