Proceedings of the 2004 Great Lakes Lake Sturgeon Coordination Meeting


Sturgeon Passage Panel Discussion

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Presenters & Panelists:
Dr. Luther Aadland, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
Steve Amaral, Alden Lab
Dr. Boyd Kynard, USGS Northeast Anadromous Fish Research Lab
Gary Whelan, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

(Presentation abstracts listed above under oral presentations for Sturgeon Passage.)

Moderator: Dave Bryson, USFWS New York Field Office

Dave:
Welcome to the Sturgeon Passage Panel Discussion session. We’ve got a great group of panelists with diverse knowledge and experience. I’ll repeat the question when necessary. If you’ve got a general or what if, type question those would be good to get started. I’d ask you to hold off on the specific or detailed questions and find a time to talk with the panels later.

Question:
Around the Great Lakes most populations are small, remnants of what was once present. Most of these small populations are likely not limited by spawning habitat, but rather by too few fish and available spawning habitat is not saturated even at sites with barriers. So where should we focus our attention? Should fish passage be our first priority where suitable upstream habitat exists even though providing access to more habitats would reduce spawner density and perhaps limit production, or should we first focus on increasing the number of adults present? Conversely, where are populations great enough that passage is an obvious need at this time?

Gary:
Unless there is no suitable sturgeon spawning habitat upstream of a barrier, I don’t think we can ever go wrong by providing passage. Even if the population is small or we don’t know the size I still feel that we should provide access to upstream spawning habitat.

Dave:
Boyd, can you talk a little about target numbers.

Boyd:
No, I don’t feel I’m able to discuss that, but I’d like to restate one action item from yesterday’s fish passage breakout. That being the critical need to develop basin specific restoration plans which detail objectives such as prioritize passage issues and all other issues related to sturgeon management.

Luther:
Unless there is suitable and adequate habitat there is little reason to attempt to restore sturgeon populations. Since environmental conditions tend to vary from year to year and sturgeon spawn infrequently there will be years when spawning sites are suitable and years when they are not. Therefore, I recommend we provide as much potential spawning habitat as practical and allow the fish to choose and utilize the habitat they prefer.

Comment:
With regard to basin specific planning, in Michigan waters of Lake Superior, the two rivers with sturgeon are within the Ottawa National Forest. Currently we are under a court order to cooperatively identify and explore opportunities to improve habitat on these federal lands. So, the opportunity is here if there are some restoration ideas.

Dave:
More and more court orders are forcing federal agencies to develop partnerships and coordinate work with many parties to develop projects.

Question:
Using the new turbine design that passes juvenile sturgeon downstream, what was your turbine efficiency percentage and how does the industry accept this design?

Steve:
The efficiency of our turbine design was 89%, which is slightly below conventional turbines. This issue is being addressed now since the next step is to develop a prototype for field use which needs to be comparable in energy production to existing turbines. We are talking with folks about potential sites for these field trials. At a site in the state of New York, a settlement agreement was drafted that included the installation of our turbine as a fish passage measure. For this installation, we will need to make some design changes to improve power production, without compromising fish survival, making it more feasible from an economic standpoint.

Gary:
With most conventional hydropower facilities the place to implement modifications to pass fish are the turbines on the by-pass channels or leading/power canal. The middle of the river powerhouse offers few, if any, option to successfully pass fish at high efficiency.

Question:
Doesn’t that still leave us with an impingement problem at the powerhouse with the larger fish?

Gary:
That potential exists but there may be ways to deal with the larger fish. They have better sustained swimming speeds than small fish and we may be able to utilize that capability to improve passage. Maybe even a collection gallery type system. It is not practical to utilize a 3 mile long louver type system to pass large fish, since you’ll have high mortality rates. We haven’t really explored how to deal with fish going over the spillway, but the survival is likely low.

Question:
Are we doing much assessment of downstream passage safety and how to improve spillway design?

Boyd:
We have done some work with shortnose sturgeon which are a good surrogate for lake sturgeon up to a certain size based on swimming ability and morphology. Back in 90’s we did a lot of telemetry on adult shortnose sturgeon upstream of dam at Holyoke. Our objective was to gather info during the relicensing to determine if there was a need for downstream protection of the federally endangered and thus, protected, shortnose sturgeon. We gathered information on the mortality rate going through the turbines and over spillway. If an adult or large juvenile (30 inches or so TL) goes through the turbines there is 100% mortality, whereas we found that those fish going over the spillway had 100% survival. We recaptured some of the fish going over the spillway and there were injuries to these fish but they did survive.

Gary:
The facility at Holyoke has a nice smooth spillway landing, which is unlike many other facilities which have large energy diffusers (concrete blocks) or retaining walls that cause very high mortality.

Dave:
Not all hydropower facilities are created equal. Some dams have gates and release structures some of which will put the stem right at the floor where the water comes out rather than off to the side. Need to talk with engineers on sight to know how the facility operates. Also need to consider whether there is enough water being spilled at the right time of year to pass fish. Some spillways only have a trickle of water which doesn’t allow fish to pass over, and if they did, they would probably die upon impact.

Comment:
I visited a spillway in spring during high water and they had only 3 of 40+ gates open and water was jetting over the dam onto the diffuser. Any fish passing through was dead. I asked why only 3 gates were open and was told it was the easiest way to operate. In some cases we just need to work with the operators to make them aware of fish passage concerns.

Question:
How do we transition from lab tests to the field applicability?

Steve:
For some technologies it isn’t that hard, for others it is more difficult. For example, at Hadley Falls there is a long history of developing effective fish passage facilities. They conducted louver and angled bar-rack studies in the lab and came up with some good information. Now they need to apply this information to the field where flows aren’t as laminar, it is a much larger system, and environmental cues that affect fish behavior are more variable. At Hadley Falls, they put in full depth louver to test with several fish species, primarily shortnose sturgeon and American eel. Pilot studies are usually the best approach to find out if a technology will achieve goals without the expense of constructing a full-scale system. It’s not an easy thing to do and there are trade-offs between the biological and engineering aspects of any project.

Boyd:
Steve and I have done small scale lab experiments and we progress from there. At Conte we are scaling up, while still in the lab we are much closer to actual flows and the environment the fish will encounter. I see this as an incremental approach to actual field work. We want to increase the probability of success to 90-95% or as much as possible before put an application in the field. We’re trying to do everything possible using an incremental approach to ensure there are no unexpected setbacks. For the next 2 years, we will work on a larger scale by-pass system within the laboratory and in year 3 work with agencies to build some structure at Hadley, and then evaluate that operation. Before we ask or require a power company to spend a lot of money we want to be darn near sure we’ve got it worked out.

Question:
With all the dams built many years ago reaching the end of their life, how can we start to encourage decommissioning of dams?

Luther:
First, is maintenance cost. Dams cost a lot to maintain and cost will continue to increase. In Minnesota we have used that as leverage, by covering the cost of removal.

Gary:
Luther is absolutely right. Cost is the key to removal and decommissioning of dams. Economics drives the process. In many cases the dams are owned by municipalities and then the state becomes the ward of the dam and ends up paying the cost of the dam. Unfortunately, there are federal dollars available to fix and maintain, but almost never to remove them. So they get fixed with no consideration for the next time the dam fails.

Luther:
We recently had a dam failure. FEMA came in and offered to rebuild the failed dam exactly as it was previously. Minnesota DNR threatened to deny a permit to do that since we now had fish passage upriver and the intended function of the dam for ice control was questionable. Minnesota DNR proposed an alternative. The dam breach had resulted in a loss of over a mile of river that Minnesota DNR wanted reclaimed. Our proposal would restore of the river channel by creating rapids at the site of the dam and largely remove the structure. In the end FEMA changed their position and funded the removal.

Dave:
Many states are grappling with dam removal issues and who will pay for it. Some states have been more successful than others working with federal agencies to consider alternatives and secure funding.

Question:
Can you give us an estimate of costs of dam removal and by-pass channel construction?

Luther:
It can be less expensive that you would think. The two by-pass type fishways were each about 30K. The main channel rapids vary widely based on the volume of material and the hydraulic height of the dam. The Grand Forks dam modification used 80,000 tons of rock, it had a scour hole up to 30’ deep, was a 400’ wide river, and that cost $4.7 million. The Mid Town dam modification cost $235,000. The North Dam cost $117K. One large one required 20K tons of material and cost only $169K. In this case the city had been virtually inundated during the 1997 flood and FEMA bought out homes in floodplain. We saved a lot of money by using clean concrete materials from the destruction of the structures for the base and had them remove the rebar. The concrete base was covered by three feet of field stone so the concrete could not be seen. In western Minnesota we have a lot of glacial till nearby so cost will depend on proximity of materials. I budget $40/ yard for materials on average.

Dave:
The proximity to the stone materials can make a big difference in cost.

Luther:
The biggest main channel rapids we built had a dam hydraulic height of about 13’ high. Most are around 10’. At one site we are currently removing a dam and building rapids upstream. Due to bank stability issues we are required to return river to same crest elevation so the rapids are being built upstream. Because it is upstream there are deposited materials that the large materials are placed on top using less material than if we had filled the very large scour hole in the tailwater.

Fish naturally find the main channel rapids but on the bypass channels it is critical to have the entrance in the immediate tail water area. These bypasss channels pass only a portion of the flow (one passed about 20% the other about 6% of the mean annual flow) and on larger rivers the spawning population can become bottlenecked and vulnerable at certain times of year. If a large number of migrating fish are forced into a small fishway, it is likely that only a proportion of them will be able to pass due to this bottleneck effect and vulnerability to predation.

Question
Dave:
What is the time frame for planning and what is the permit process like? In the presentation I noticed heavy equipment in stream?

Luther:
Construction does cause some disturbance but our staff from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency recognize the long-term benefits of restored fish passage and even contributed funds to one of the projects There have been regulatory growing pains. The interstate waters (Red River) where two state agencies are involved. We have needed to develop physical model of the rapids even though we had empirical data from previously built rapids. There are hoops to jump through and just need to cover the permit process.

Planning time frame varies a lot, sometimes it happens quickly and other times really slowly. First thing you need to do is to plant the seed at which time you may get ridiculed. One needs to be patient and not get discouraged. During early meetings on the first large dam conversion, the idea of converting the dam to a rapids was not very well received. Some folks wanted a bigger dam with fencing to keep people away. But once we did the first project, subsequent projects sold themselves and community leaders helped get funding to modify other dams.

Question:
How do you figure out the entrance level of the by-pass channels when dealing with changing water levels below the dam?

Luther:
This was the key issue on the first such by-pass project. The dam had no real operational/management plan and it had a 4’ fluctuation in the pool. We used a cattle crossing culvert and put boulders within culvert and staggered them to act as a baffle. A flood in 1997 washed the dam out and left the fishway behind. The dam was quickly rebuilt with FEMA funds following a Federal Disaster Declaration. I surveyed reservoir and tailwater levels under high and low pool conditions and calculated velocity and discharge that would be seen in the fishway. Based on the range of head I designed the entrance to be passable under all water levels. A large boulder was placed at the entrance to narrow it and limit the amount of flow during high reservoir elevation.

Dave:
This shows the importance of having good flow data available for the site.

Question:
Since we often don’t know how many sturgeon are in a system, are there potential problems for the sturgeon with trapping and holding large numbers of large fish in a trap and transfer style fish passage device?

Boyd:
Fish ladder and trap technology and engineering is well developed. Normally during construction if separation and sorting are needed, they will build a sorting pen that shunts fish off to a sorting area. As far as damage to fish we have all N. Am sturgeon in our lab. We have sturgeon up to 30 lbs. and we handle these fish all the time similar to how they would be handled in a separate and sort and transfer facility. Sturgeons are very tolerant and hardy and I don’t see that as a problem. With shortnose sturgeon we have had no problems handling up to 40 a day and they are handled a lot.

The biggest issue seems to be funding for personnel to man such a facility. The manpower and/or time required to sort or transfer fish can be costly and that is a bigger limitation than the technology aspects of fishway design. If there are issues with exotics, lampreys, etc. then the passive fishway design that Luther has shown may not be feasible. For situations where exotics are an issue, a sorting and transfer facility at the lowest dam would be a big advantage.

Question:
Are there guidelines for how much water is need in a separating facility?

Boyd:
Yes.

Dave:
There are also guidelines for fish attractant water so fish can find it as opposed to tail race. Keep in mind that with the exception of Luther’s presentation, we have discussed upstream and downstream passage separately. Typically, we don’t send fish back down the upstream facility. Folks need to be aware that there are generally different pathways for upstream and downstream movement.

Luther:
Regarding the exotics issue in Minnesota I have been involved with the Mississippi navigation study. In that system there are 2 Asian carp species present and the bighead have already entered Minnesoata waters. The general consensus of biologists on the fish passage team was that these Asian carp would be the first to make it through the lock system and that they ultimately would make it upstream. We believe that what we really need to do is benefit native species by providing passage so that they are able to utilize key upstream habitat. The current system favors the Asian carp since they are among the strongest swimmers and the reservoirs provide them with ideal habitat.

Comment:
Gary could you follow-up on the lamprey program. Earlier you made a comment that the current chemical control is a viable option.

Gary:
The current chemical treatment program for lamprey is very fine tuned. There are different camps of support for or against the use of chemicals for lamprey control and these will persist. Chemical treatments are very expensive especially on large systems; however, the use of barriers is also expensive especially when considering the cost of manning a facility. The duration of time needed to man a station seems to continually increase. It is no longer just March - July, but extends before and after those months. It seems as though we are asked to operate our weir facility on the Platte River, which we use for our coho program, but which also serves as a lamprey barrier, longer each year. That increases the cost considerably. In my opinion, on an ecosystem basis and at present prices chemical treatment is currently a better option than barriers or dams. There is a proposal to put in 48 sea lamprey barriers in the state of Michigan. At the present time, I am not personally in agreement with those who are advocating the use of barriers as a means of controlling sea lamprey over maintaining passage and using chemical control.

Dave:
I guess the take home message would be that there is more than one way to solve a problem. Always need to consider alternatives, pluses and minuses for each project. Alternatives may be identified in a FERC process, a state document, or continuing with chemical control.

Comment:
No barrier would be put in place without the support of the jurisdictional agency and other partners, and all are evaluated within the Great Lakes Fishery Commission framework.

Gary:
One challenge regarding barriers is how long will we be able to maintain the effort on a sort/transfer facility? I don’t know if agencies have the resolve or finances to operate one or many such facilities for 40 years.

Dave:
Another point with fishways is that when installed they need to be monitored to determine if they are functioning as planned. So, there needs to be a plan and budget in place to evaluate the fishway for several years. Often environmental conditions (e.g. high or low water years) influence how long this evaluation needs to take place.

Question
Dave:
What is the main philosophical question to be answered prior implementing a project?

Gary:
Will providing passage/access to upstream habitat to fish result in a benefit to the ecosystem?

Steve:
It is critical to thoroughly assess need and available resources to ensure that you are expending your efforts on projects that will give you the biggest gains.

Boyd:
Coming from a perspective from northeastern U.S. where for 40 years upstream fish passages devices were installed before the first downstream device was installed; you really need to consider both upstream and downstream aspects.

Luther:
My biggest concern is that we look to fish passage when we should look toward dam/barrier removal. Fish passage often is easier to implement than removal but doesn’t always address the fundamental problem. If we only pass fish to more degraded reservoir habitat we’ve gained little. Habitat inundated by reservoirs may be key to reestablishing populations.

Comment:
I’d like to add a little perspective to working through the FERC process. Regarding dam removal, on one project I am involved with FERC did an economic analysis and under all scenarios the economics showed it to be a losing proposition. However, FERC re-licensed the facility without considering dam removal and over many concerns raised by natural resource agencies. How do we deal with that?

Dave:
There are general costs for fishway installation, and there are also ballpark costs for dam removal. It is important to have an engineer available and to work as a team to help examine the alternatives. A key is to document the decisions made along the way. We should always be able to justify our decisions and allow others to understand why we took the path we did.

Gary:
I think it is important that we continue to advocate for and press FERC to consider dam removal as an option. This is always an option for projects in Michigan. We need to provide these comments and keep it in the records that removal should be an option. It may take years, but at some point someone in charge will take notice that these projects are inefficient and costly, and they will realize that dam removal is not being explored or weighed as it should be. If we don’t continue to request dam removal analysis in our comments we are as culpable as FERC for not considering it as an option. At some point it will be clear or unavoidable to some senator or someone to recognize that the licensing of a project that is losing lots of money is not a better use of public interest when a particular fishery may be worth far more than the project.

Question:
Why is relicensing often the least expensive alternative despite the fact that a hydropower projects is losing money?

Gary:
Unfortunately, from a policy perspective we are currently in a half regulated/half de-regulated world at present. That makes things difficult. If it is a regulated utility they could pass the cost of removal off to cusumer because it is a true cost of doing business. It should be no different than deregulating a gas plant or nuclear plant, but for some reason, dams are treated differently. In Michigan, the process goes through a state Public Service Commission. The reason they don’t want to remove a dam even if it is losing money, from the company and short term profit perspective, is that the shareholders lose less money by relicensing the dam than they would through removal. This approach only takes into account shareholders and does not take into account the greater public interest, which FERC is required to consider.

It even gets worse than this, the unregulated utilities, which include many small hydro companies, are essentially paper companies that have no assets. We actually went to court to oppose dam licenses transfers from a viable company that had assets to deal with dam failure and removal to a company with zero assets. What will happen to public interest when the company folds/walks. The circuit court sided with the utilities sighting legal deference, a decision which I still don’t agree with. The reason they give for the decision is that they say it is a prudent decision for the investors.

Dave:
We’ve seen situations where you may have to allow the dam operator to continue but to put money into an escrow fund. Anytime you’re dealing with low economic considerations you need to find creative solutions. If you let that facility go into bankruptcy it can get really bogged down for a long time. Finding alternative solutions for low revenue project can be a key.

Boyd:
We are developing a critical lack of engineering expertise specific to fish passage and hydropower issues in the east and midwest. The USFWS has developed a very capable staff over the years, but they are retiring and moving on. Yet there appear to be no engineers replacing these individuals with the specific expertise needed. Further, I see no institutional support or interest in replacing these individuals. I am really concerned about the lack of expertise in this area, at least in the northeast and midwest.

Dave:
The USFWS does offer some engineering training through University of Mass. at the Conte Lab. So if you have staff in your agencies with interest in hydraulics and fish passageways, have them get in touch with Boyd to learn more about what is available. This is really a specialized science so it is not just for anyone with a civil engineering background and some knowledge in hydraulics. Fishways and design require specific knowledge.

Question
Dave:
What is the status of the Michigan DNR engineering staff and what is the outlook for the future?

Gary:
In Michigan DNR our staff learned on the job with projects on the St. Joe and Grand River system, with assistance from folks from NMFS on the west coast and Ben Rizzo (USFWS) on the east coast. However, these individuals have recently retired and to my knowledge our agency has no plans to replace these individuals. So it is unclear how our agency will handle issues of fish passage, despite the fact that some of us have expressed a real concern for this lack of expertise.

Question:
Dave: Steve, would you discuss the role of a consultant as it applies to this situation?

Steve:
I’ll give my phone number to everyone. In the private industry there are many who have been hired by utilities to address fish passage for many years. It is almost always in consultation with agency experts providing feedback and input. This collaboration is done on all projects. I also see a lack of upcoming young engineers. However, there are increasingly more in the private sector that are willing to help out.

Question:
Luther, what engineers have you used for your projects? Has it been the Army Corps of Engineers?

Luther:
In the Minnesota DNR, I have had to learn the language of engineers to interact and then have done a lot of the basic designs. The Army Corps of Engineers has funded a number of these projects with flood control dollars and they have been good to work with. They have a large staff with good engineering and CAD expertise. We have also worked with private consultants. In many cases I have done the calculations and basic layout and the engineers transfer it to CAD, check calculations, handled the logistics and compiled the specifications.

The training most engineers lack for our projects, has to do with fluvial geomorphology and the ecology of rivers and we teach courses in those subjects. Engineers from the Corps, other agencies, and private industry have attended these workshops and that has been very helpful for these types of projects. It is a little different from the typical civil engineer training that deals with open channel hydrology and fluid dynamics, and not much river system information. Generally, when I work with engineers we each bring our expertise and provide feedback that strengthens the final product. It would be nice to have more people specifically assigned to the dam removal projects.

Comment:
I agree with Boyd that there aren’t enough passage engineers out there to help with fishways. I’ve looked for resources, and the northeast is the only place where I can find any. I’m with the USFWS and we continue to be asked to show the need for this specialty within our agency.

Boyd:
You’re right on. Clearly the southern and midwest regions of the country have big fish passage needs and the folks in the northeast are stretched too thin. I think the need is clearly there.

Parting Comments:
Boyd:
Seems like we are on the threshold of institutionally getting to the point where you are able to take action to enact fish passage projects rather than just talk about it like we have done for the last decade or so. I am glad to see us approaching that point and implementing projects.

Steve:
From the downstream perspective, there aren’t a lot of answers for lake sturgeon passage since there hasn’t been a lot of work with this species. To improve downstream passage, it needs to be a collaborative effort and include multiple sturgeon species, since the problems are the same, regardless of species, and morphology and behavior are often similar. There are a lot of tools available, including laboratories studies, computational fluid dynamics modeling, field studies, and basic migrational tagging studies. For downstream passage of younger fish, we don’t know enough at this point and there is more work to be done.

Luther:
I think sturgeon are a good poster child for rivers in general, and that a lot of what we are doing now will not come to fruition for years. But I also don’t think we have seen the full extent of the damage we have done to our rivers nationwide. When we have fish that live to 100 years many processes continue to deteriorate over time and resilience is lost over time as well. I think we need to look long into the future for what we are doing. I believe rivers have been so damaged that we will continue to see declines in the short term and to reverse the trend we need to take action in a big way now.

Gary:
Lake sturgeon rehabilitation in the Great Lakes will not occur without fish passage, so we do need to address this issue. Hatcheries are not the solution. We need to develop self-sustaining populations. In some respects, the engineering side is the simple side, the policy and people side can be the hard side and we shouldn’t overlook this. Fortunately, sturgeon is the perfect species to address fish passage issues. People are enamored with sturgeon. Other species don’t grab the headlines and create the interest that sturgeons do. Just try to get someone excited about logperch. We also need to consider all potential partners, some may be strange bedfellows, but their interests can help us achieve our goal of fish passage or dam removal.

Dave:
I think we’ve received a wide perspective on fish passage issues, let’s thank our speakers.


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