Webcast outlines reasonable range of alternatives

Columbia River System Operations EIS
Published May 16, 2019
An online webcast outlining the five alternatives undergoing a detailed evaluation for the Columbia River System Operations EIS.

An online webcast outlining the five alternatives undergoing a detailed evaluation for the Columbia River System Operations EIS.

This video is hosted on YouTube at 

This presentation is to help keep you informed on the process for the Columbia River System Operations Draft Environmental Impact Statement – or CRSO EIS.

The US Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Bonneville Power Administration are midway through a multi-year effort to update a plan for long-term system operations, maintenance, and configuration of the Columbia River System.

The system we are referring to is comprised of 14 federal projects – dams and reservoirs – in the Columbia River Basin.  These dams and reservoirs cannot be operated separately, they work together to provide many uses and benefits to the region – they are a true system. 

The draft EIS is scheduled to be released for public comment February of 2020.  It will include a reasonable range of alternatives that were considered for the long-term plan for the system. Today we will describe those alternatives.

Ultimately, the records of decision will document how we will balance the multiple purposes of the federal projects, while complying with the relevant environmental laws and regulations. 

The National Environmental Policy Act – or NEPA – requires federal agencies to review and disclose the environmental effects of taking an action.  We use that information, including the public review process of the draft EIS, to inform the decision about the action we are proposing to take. 

Additionally, NEPA requires federal agencies to consider a reasonable range of alternatives before making a decision to act on a preferred alternative. We are working diligently through the NEPA process and wanted to update you on the status of our progress. 

The co-lead agencies combined measures to develop a reasonable range of alternatives – five of them -- that satisfy the stated purpose and need of the EIS and its associated objectives.

In the CRSO EIS we are evaluating the potential environmental and social effects of the five multi-objective alternatives.

We’ll provide definitions for the terms objectives, measures and alternatives in a few minutes.

For each of the five alternatives, we are evaluating the costs, benefits and tradeoffs, including how the alternatives affect congressionally authorized purposes of the federal projects, and resources such as fish and wildlife. 

The alternatives we are evaluating present a range of potential actions, and a no-action alternative, that seek different ways to balance the various effects of each alternative. 

The way we constructed the alternatives takes into account different combinations of measures with different emphasis.

For example, some of the measures that we are analyzing focus solely on benefitting fish, with different balances of power generation, water management, and irrigation measures. 

Some measures promote low carbon power generation, with different balances of navigation, fish and wildlife conservation, and water supply measures.

Operating, maintaining, and configuring the complex Columbia River System to achieve the multiple authorized purposes of the dams and reservoirs requires an adaptive and reasonably balanced strategy to give us the flexibility to adjust to changing water conditions. 

The EIS will look at new information, such as that associated with implementing flexible spill in 2019, so that this information could be incorporated into our future decision making and used in the EIS.  

We may select the preferred alternative from any of the alternatives that we are analyzing.  We may also make minor adjustments to an existing alternative, within the flexibility allowed under NEPA, by adding or removing measures analyzed within the EIS to identify the preferred alternative.  We might do this to effectively balance meeting the multiple purposes of the federal projects, and to moderate the impacts of operations on multiple resources.

Webcast Minute 3:46 – Terms and definitions
Before we take a closer look at the alternatives, let’s establish some definitions, and give you a quick history on how the co-lead agencies, working with the cooperating agencies, developed the alternatives based, in part, on input from the public.

Objectives are statements of the desired outcome of the EIS, representing the “need” for the federal action, as identified by the federal agencies and scoping comments.  It reflects the changed condition expected by taking the federal action.  These are the “what” that we are trying to accomplish. The co-lead agencies solicited ideas for objectives through the public scoping period, by working with cooperating agencies, and by identifying the co-lead agencies purposes for undertaking an EIS analysis.

An example of an objective is to improve ESA-listed anadromous salmonid adult fish migration within the project area through actions including, but not limited to, project configuration, flow management, spill operations, and water quality management.

A measure describes an action that meets an objective, in whole or in part.  This is the “how” of achieving an objective. Measures are typically associated with a specific action in a precise location.  An alternative usually consists of a number of measures combined to form a plan to meet objectives. 

Using the objective that we mentioned, a measure could be to provide structural enhancements for fish passage – such as adding surface passage structures and improving fish ladders.

An alternative is a collection of one or more measures (or actions) that, together, address the stated purpose and need of the EIS, and the study objectives

Based on public comments we received from the scoping process, and the expertise of the co-lead and cooperating agencies, we developed alternatives that focused on meeting the authorized purposes of the system, while evaluating different ways we could optimize the system through configurational changes. 

Webcast Minute 5:48 - Alternatives
So now let’s dive into a description of the alternatives.  First, we’ll talk about the no-action alternative.  Despite the label “no-action,” this alternative doesn’t mean it proposes to do nothing.  In fact, this alternative is more accurately described under NEPA as the “no change” (or status quo) alternative.   

Webcast Minute 5:53 – No-action alternative
The no-action alternative describes the continued operation, maintenance and configuration of the Columbia River System according to operation rules in effect in September 2016 and carried forward to future year.  September 2016 coincides with the co-lead agencies filing the notice of intent to prepare this EIS in the Federal Register. 

The no-action alternative assumes the co-lead agencies will continue to operate, maintain, and configure the Columbia River System for all congressionally-authorized purposes.

At this time, that includes actions proposed by the three co-lead agencies on previous Endangered Species Act – or ESA -- consultations with NOAA Fisheries and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Spill in the no-action alternative follows the 2016 Fish Operations Plan and requires meeting performance standards that were developed under previous biological opinions.  

The no-action alternative also assumes we would implement structural measures that would affect operations already budgeted and scheduled as of September 2016.  The majority of these structural projects are modifications to the dams to improve conditions for ESA-listed fish. 

An example is that we are assuming high-efficiency, improved fish passage turbines will be installed at Ice Harbor and McNary dams, as already planned. 

Webcast Minute 7:27 – Measures common in alternatives
Now let’s take a look at measures that are in most of the other four action alternatives. 

Update flood Risk management operations at Libby and Grand Coulee dams. 

At Libby Dam, during average and dry years, let local forecast conditions dictate more of the operations.

At Grand Coulee Dam, reduce the draft rate in April by releasing more water, earlier, in wetter years. This operation reduces the risk of landslides along the shoreline and reduces spill in some years.

The intent is to provide flexibility for water managers to provide better flood storage responses, and provide fish habitat, as well as fish water augmentation.  We will evaluate the effects to fish, water supply, power, and other resources in the EIS.

Provide for authorized irrigation water supply -- These measures include additional pumping of water from Lake Roosevelt, from Hungry Horse, and for the Chief Joseph Dam Project.

Provide structural measures for fish passage – These measures would add surface passage structures at some dams’ powerhouses, upgrade spillway weirs, add lamprey passage, and improve existing fish ladders.

Install a pumping system to provide cooling water to adult fish ladders at Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor – Cooler water encourages adult fish to continue their journey migrating through the lower Snake River.

Modify operations to smooth the triggers for summer draft at some upstream projects –This measure would allow summer releases to follow a sliding scale based on local streamflow forecasts. 

Provide slightly more flexibility in the forebay during fish passage season at fish passage projects to shape water flows within the day.  This would allow more water to build up in the forebay behind the dam for power generation when the region needs it most.  This provides flexibility for power generation to help integrate variable renewables such as wind and solar.  Variable renewables are not always available to produce energy, such as when the wind is not blowing, or at nighttime when there is no sun shining.  Additional flexibility in the hydro system can help make best use of those sources of energy by providing a backup source of generation.

Webcast Minute 9:44 – Multi-objective alternative 1
So now let’s do a deep dive into each of the four multi-objective alternatives.

We’ll start with multiple-objective alternative number one, or MO-1.  In addition to the measures we’ve already listed as common to most alternatives, MO1 contains the following:

Spill – The spill in MO1 is an alternating spill pattern for juvenile fish passage. The amount of spill in MO1 is more than the no-action alternative.

MO-1 would use two different spill periods in spring — a base spill period would spill to the performance standards that were developed under previous biological opinions.

An alternating spill period would spill up to 115 percent total dissolved gas level in the forebay and 120 percent total dissolved gas level in the tailrace, which is the downstream side of the dam.

In summer, MO1 uses a fish-count trigger for potentially ending spill earlier at the lower Snake projects in August when the benefits to fish are limited because there are very few fish migrating downstream. 

Fish transport – In MO1, fish transport would begin on April 15, which is earlier than the no action alternative of starting on April 25.  The fish transport program collects some of the fish approaching a dam, places them into barges or trucks, and ferries them downstream.

Change the timing of cooling water released from Dworshak – This measure uses cooler water releases earlier, as well as later, at Dworshak – in June, July, and September, rather than releasing more cooler water in August under the no action alternative.  The EIS will evaluate whether this measure effectively provides cooler water to benefit adult salmon and steelhead over a longer period, while they migrate upstream.   

Webcast Minute 11:36 – Multi-objective alternative 2
Multi-objective alternative 2, or MO-2, includes operations, maintenance, and configuration measures that might occur if producing low carbon power becomes a higher priority. 

MO2 contains the measures we listed earlier as common to most alternatives, except for authorized water withdrawals for irrigation, which includes municipal and industrial uses.

In addition to those, MO2 includes provisions for the following:

Spill – MO2 calls for the least amount of juvenile fish passage spill– reducing it to near 110 percent total dissolved gas level.

MO2 curtails spill in August.  Allowing water through the power house versus over the spillway provides more water for power generation, power system flexibility, and reliability.

These measures could increase power generation in the spring, summer, and importantly in August when the region’s power demand is the greatest.  The co-lead agencies will evaluate the impact of these spill changes on out-migrating fish survival and other resources. 

Although this alternative calls for spill to near 110 percent total dissolved gas, at some projects spill may be slightly higher to meet minimum requirements for safe operations and specific issues at each of the dams.

Water management for power –

First, let’s define two terms: 

Minimum operating pool or MOP, is the lowest water level at which a dam can operate to provide its authorized purposes. 

Minimum irrigation pool or MIP, is the lowest level at which you can pump water out of the reservoir for irrigation.

MO2 removes restrictions to operate the run-of-river projects at minimum operating pool and minimum irrigation pool at the reservoirs to provide more flexibility to shape flows within the day, and some between days. 

Run-of-river projects would also have no restrictions on turbine operating range so they may operate over a broader range to help integrate variable renewables such as wind and solar and help manage total dissolved gas levels during high flows.  

MO2 also includes storage projects drafting slightly deeper in the winter and early spring, allowing additional generation in the winter when demand is higher and less during the spring run-off when demand for power is low during mild spring weather. 

And finally, MO2 increases the duration when the lower Snake River projects can operate at zero generation outside the fish passage season.  This could increase flexibility by holding water for a few hours when demand for electricity is low to address peaks in electricity use later. This would also help integrate wind and solar power generation into the regional electric grid.  (Note, zero generation does not mean there would be a dry riverbed for a few hours.)

Fish transport – Fish transport would start April 25 and end August 31.  Since there is less spill, fish transport would increase.

Fish screens – We would only use fish screens at fish transportation collector projects.  Fish screens decrease generation efficiency and create a more turbulent environment for fish entering turbines, which can disorient fish. Removing fish screens could benefit power generation and make turbine entry less turbulent.
However, more fish would also pass through turbines relative to the no-action alternative because there would be no fish screens to divert them into the juvenile bypasses. Effects to power generation, fish and other resources will be provided in the EIS.

Webcast Minute 15:09 Multi-objective alternative 3
The unique measure of multi-objective alternative 3, or MO3, is that it calls for breaching the four lower Snake River dams.  The co-lead agencies received many comments during the scoping period to include analysis of this measure in the CRSO EIS.

Dam breaching is not the same as dam removal. Breaching removes the earthen portion of a dam and additional shoreline to allow the river to bypass the concrete infrastructure. Removing a dam (including the concrete powerhouse, navigation locks, etc.) is a far costlier action, because for instance, the structure is built into bedrock and would require separating the structures from the bedrock and remediating the condition of the bedrock.

MO3 includes provisions for the following:

Structural measures – MO3 breaches the four lower Snake River dams, which are Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor by removing the earthen embankments. The concrete structures – the actual dams -- would remain in place, and the powerhouse, fish ladders, and navigation locks would be non-operational. 

Spill – MO3 calls for spilling in spring, 24 hours a day, to 120 percent total dissolved gas level. Spill only applies to the lower Columbia projects because the four lower Snake River projects would be breached.  Summer spill would be at the same level as the no action alternative and would end July 31.

Water management for power – MO3 would remove the minimum irrigation pool restriction at John Day to provide more flexibility to shape flows within the day, and some between days.  Libby may draft deeper at the end of December.  The lower Columbia projects also get more flexibility for power generation with fewer restrictions on turbine operating range.  This can help integrate variable renewables such as wind and solar and manage total dissolved gas levels during high flows.

Webcast Minute 17:15 Multi-objective alternative 4
Multi-objective alternative number four, or MO-4, features the highest spill operations of the alternatives, 125 percent TDG at eight lower Snake and Columbia projects with measures to drawdown water in the storage projects to provide flows for spring migration, for water management, irrigation, and power purposes.
MO4 contains most of the measures listed as common to most alternatives, except upgrades to the spillway weirs. 

MO4 has a measure to add notch gate inserts to spillway weirs.  Water normally passes over the spillway weir’s top surface, but the notched inserts would sit on top and channel the flow somewhat like a spout, rather than allowing the full flow from a bucket.  This could be used to provide surface passage for adult fish at lower flows than traditional spillway weir operations, to help overshoots.  Overshoots are fish that migrated too far upstream through a dam and past their spawning grounds so they have to travel back downstream, through the dam again. 

The notch gate inserts at the spillway weirs would also allow for smaller spill levels than an unmodified spillway weir for October and November spill. 

In addition, MO4 includes provisions for the following:

Spill – MO4 would call for juvenile fish passage spill up to 125 percent of the total dissolved gas level at the four lower Columbia and four lower Snake River dams – the eight fish passage projects, from March 1 to August 31. 

MO4 also calls for some spill for adult steelhead March, October and November.

Flow augmentation from storage projects – This measure provides additional flow augmentation in drier years – up to 2 million acre feet – from Grand Coulee and some upstream reservoirs, to more frequently meet the downstream flow target at McNary Dam to benefit ESA-listed species. 

Reservoir drawdown – This measure calls for drawdown at the four lower Columbia and four lower Snake River projects in the spring and summer, mostly to minimum operating pools at the reservoirs. 

Other – MO4 requires juvenile fish transport April 25 through November 15, except during the period from June 15 through August 15.  In addition, this alternative would limit Libby discharge in winter to potentially help establish vegetation for resident fish habitat. 

Well that completes our briefing of the CRSO draft EIS alternatives that we are analyzing.  This graph shows where we are in the NEPA process.  We plan to release the Draft EIS for public comment in February 2020.  You have an opportunity to comment on that draft.  As we continue developing the EIS, we aim to keep you posted on the progress.

From all of us at the co-lead agencies of Bonneville, the US Army Corps of Engineers, and the Bureau of Reclamation, thanks for your interest in the development of this tremendously important EIS. 
Webcast END