$700 Million Plan to Help
by Gosia Wozniacka, Associated Press
"To think you can compensate for the effects of dams by habitat restoration is a flawed premise,"
said Ed Bowles, with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - A massive federal habitat restoration effort in the Columbia River Basin has spent more than $700 million on breaching levies, restoring tidal channels, reconnecting floodplains and other actions meant to boost salmon and steelhead populations imperiled by hydroelectric dams.
Experts say it's likely the largest, most intensive, and most expensive habitat restoration program in the nation. Hundreds of restoration projects in Oregon, Idaho, Washington, and Montana have reopened more than 2,800 miles of habitat.
The monumental scope and price tag stem from habitat restoration's role as the centerpiece in a federal management plan to relieve the damage that dams cause to fish. Critics of the plan say relying heavily on habitat improvements is not enough to restore wild fish runs and take them off the endangered species list.
The plan has changed over the past two decades after several legal challenges; the latest version has also been challenged in court and is scheduled to be debated in front of a judge Tuesday.
In defending the plan, federal officials say record numbers of chinook, coho and sockeye salmon returned in 2014 to the Columbia and its tributaries - thanks in large part, they say, to the improved habitat.
But many of the basin's 13 protected runs of salmon and steelhead are still barely hanging on and most of the returning fish were born in hatcheries, not in the wild - a reality that's leading critics to call for the breaching of four dams.
Prior to European settlement, millions of salmon and steelhead returned every year to the Columbia and its tributaries. But due to overfishing, agricultural water diversions, mining, logging and pollution, salmon populations plummeted.
Biologists estimate that most of the fish habitat was lost or damaged. Construction of energy-producing dams dealt the biggest blow to fish mortality. The management plans - called biological opinions - must mitigate the dams' damage to the threatened or endangered populations and set goals for their survival.
These plans include improving fish passage and making operational changes at the dams, keeping predators such as Caspian terns or sea lions at bay and reducing the impacts of artificially-bred fish on wild ones.
But since 2000, habitat restoration has become the plan's most important strategy. Officials say scientific evidence shows fish survival is directly linked to the quality of their habitat.
The Bonneville Power Administration, the federal agency that markets power from the dams and funds the majority of habitat projects in the basin, is effusive about the program. BPA says changes in habitat are impressive and the fish are using it - in some cases, salmon arrive within a few weeks after habitat is restored.
"We have been highly successful," BPA's Rosy Mazaika said.
But federal scientists overseeing the restoration work are a lot more reserved.
"We're working on it. I'm not going to say it's a qualified success, because not every project has a qualified benefit," said Chris Jordan, a NOAA research scientist who oversees the largest research and monitoring project under the plan.
The biggest challenge, Jordan said, is isolating the factors that limit fish survival and recovery and deciding whether a habitat improvement will make a difference.
FEEDBACK: Snake River Sockeye Salmon Recovery Plan by Greg Stahl, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 6/19/15
FEEDBACK: Snake River Sockeye Recovery Plan by Scott Levy, Columbia Basin Bulletin, 11/19/10
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