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NW Delegation, Feds Air Views on Recovery Plans

by Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin - September 15, 2000

Three days of hearings before two Senate subcommittees this week provided the first public forum for a direct exchange of views on the Clinton administration's salmon recovery plan between top federal officials and their strongest critics in the Northwest congressional delegation.

Republican senators were highly critical of the administration's draft Columbia Basin salmon plan and said it must be drastically changed before they could support it. They made a wide variety of general demands and specific suggestions, with most endorsing the four Northwest governors' agreement on principles for salmon recovery.

Shortly after the governors announced their agreement, federal officials unveiled their long-awaited salmon strategy in July, along with a legally required draft biological opinion on the federal hydropower system. A congressional hearing to examine the proposal was scheduled to take place at the time but had to be canceled at the last minute because of unrelated problems.

The comprehensive plan calls for a wide array of management actions, habitat restoration projects and restrictions on human activities to be undertaken by federal, state and local government to restore 12 endangered salmon and steelhead runs in the basin. Factors affecting the survival of the fish throughout their life cycle would be addressed, but a decision on whether to tear down four dams on the lower Snake River would be deferred for five to 10 years.

Republicans, including presidential candidate George W. Bush, oppose any further consideration of dam removal and have criticized the administration and Vice President Al Gore for failing to rule out the option for the future.

At the first hearing on Tuesday, Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee's Water and Power Subcommittee, told the officials, "You know what we oppose. Now give us something to support."

Smith said the National Marine Fisheries Service's draft BiOp and the administration's salmon strategy do not fill the bill. They are not "a substitute for comprehensive, species-specific recovery plans (and) neither has a well defined set of priorities or specific timelines for implementation."

He noted that because of the salmon's two- to three-year life cycle, actions must be taken in the first year or two of the plan for their impact on adult survival rates to be known in time for the five-year checkpoint on whether the plan is succeeding. "I agree with the position of other leaders in the region that the timeframes under the biological opinion should be adjusted both to hasten implementation and to allow ... at least two salmon life cycles to evaluate the impact of actions on salmon survival rates."

Smith questioned two current policies -- spilling water over dams to aid downstream salmon migration and killing surplus returning hatchery-bred fish.

"To date, NMFS' strategy amounts to 'spill 'em on the way out, club 'em on the way back,' " he said.

"Propose something practical that can be implemented without running over the rights of the people in the Northwest." Smith urged. "The tribes and stakeholders in the region have made extensive suggestions for activities that could quickly be implemented throughout the basin."

He said Northwest members stand ready to support funding for effective salmon recovery measures affecting all four "H's" -- habitat, harvest, hydropower and hatcheries.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said that regardless of the disagreement over the plan, Congress could pass several bills this year that have bipartisan support and would help recover salmon. Those include a bill to help fund installation of, and improvements to, irrigation fish screens, incentives for irrigators to conserve water and authority for additional habitat restoration in the lower Columbia River estuary.

Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., who is preparing legislation to restrict any funding for further dam-breaching studies for one year, faulted the plan's cost, poor scientific foundation and lack of population recovery goals. Gorton said the proposal is "highly unrealistic, divisive and would invite failure from the outset."

"Instead of doing the work and filling in their own scientific gaps, NMFS has dumped a document on Northwest citizens that is over three hundred pages in length, and contains an utterly astonishing set of recommendations," Gorton said. "If accepted, these proposals would cost hundreds of millions of dollars -- if not billions -- even before the federal agencies have any idea how many fish they must recover or verify that their proposals are scientifically valid."

The plan advocates measures that could "flood farmland, shut off more irrigation ditches, dry up lakes dependent on recreation and tourism, ration water rights, require the purchase of private lands and urge the acquisition of water from Canada with electricity ratepayer dollars, and force the spill of millions of cubic feet of water over dams that could seriously threaten the reliability and supply of the region's electric power," he said.

Instead, Gorton expressed support for the efforts of local volunteer groups and the Northwest governors' plan.

The draft BiOp "mandates further development" of the dam breaching option and directs the Corps of Engineers by fiscal year 2002 to seek funding from Congress to complete preliminary engineering and design work for potential removal of the lower Snake River dams in five years, he complained.

"The document also officially opens the door for the potential removal of dams other than those on the Snake River," Gorton added.

"I will introduce legislation preventing the use of any federal funds toward breaching dams during this next fiscal year (2001). This will ensure that scarce resources remain focused on measures proven to save salmon, rather than be used to further federal agencies' threats to implement dam removal," he said.

George Frampton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, defended the strategy as "an all-options plan. That's what we think the salmon need."

Frampton said there is still no regionwide consensus on the best path to salmon recovery, but that he hoped the plan would form the basis for one. The governors' proposal "has a great deal of overlap with our approach," he said.

Frampton called for cooperation between the two parties, Congress and the administration and the federal and state governments.

"If this isn't a partnership, it won't succeed," he said.

Frampton and NMFS regional director Will Stelle said that the final BiOp, which is to be adopted by the end of this year, must be based on sound science and be able to withstand legal attack in court next year. "We obviously want to have the final plan as good as we can make it," Frampton said.

Stelle said that to succeed, the plan must be comprehensive. He warned that choosing to implement only "the easy things" would erode its legal defensibility. Inviting intervention by the federal courts would be "a bad outcome for the Northwest," he said.

But Smith said he was concerned that "we are on a rushed timetable" that is "setting us up for a fall." Members of Congress are being asked to take costly, irreversible actions but are not convinced they are worthwhile, he said.

"I don't want to put the region over a barrel," at a time when promising new technologies -- such as fish-friendly turbines and surface collectors for gathering migrating smolts in reservoirs and by-passing them around dams -- are emerging, Smith said.

Col. Eric Mogren, Army Corps of Engineers deputy division engineer for the Northwest division, confirmed that test surface collectors at lower Granite Dam are being removed although they show promise. Mogren said they were not designed for long-term use.

But preliminary monitoring results for new fish friendly turbines that have been installed at Bonneville Dam show that survival rates still are slightly better for smolts that are spilled over the dam, Corps officials said.

Mogren said the Corps' final environmental impact statement, which is due next year, may recommend such measures as an alternative to breaching the lower Snake dams. He said he did not want to prejudge the outcome of the EIS process by commenting extensively about new technologies.

Gorton complained the administration was calling for huge expenditures and extensive management actions without establishing goals for salmon recovery.

Recovery goals for endangered Snake River stocks were established, but NMFS stopped further work on a specific recovery plan in 1998 to focus on a basinwide plan, Stelle said.

He downplayed the importance of having long-term delisting goals for each salmon population. In the short term, the most important goal is to improve replacement ratios for fish so that wild stocks are "at least replacing themselves" and hopefully, increasing.

The absence of population goals for delisting runs "is not an impediment" to recovery efforts, he said.

Stelle also fended off senators' suggestions that this year's abundant salmon returns are a sign of recovery. Frampton noted that 90 percent returning adults are hatchery fish.

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said that Pacific Ocean conditions for salmon may have entered a favorable cycle of increased productivity after years of unfavorable conditions.

Stelle agreed that some data exists to support the theory but that it was too early to tell. In addition, one or two years of high salmon runs are not enough to show that recovery is occurring.

"We hope, we pray that ocean conditions are turning around and will stay that way for 10 to 20 years," he said.

The good returns are also a result of years of effort by federal agencies to improve salmon survival and passage through the hydropower system. "I don't consider it $3 billion wasted," Stelle said. "We've gotten better at moving fish through the system, and we shouldn't be shy about it."

The same federal officials, except for Frampton, also testified at hearings held by Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee's Fisheries, Wildlife and Water Subcommittee, on Wednesday and Thursday.

Crapo supported the Northwest governors' proposal and called on federal agencies to collaborate with them, state and tribal fisheries scientists and regional stakeholders on a final BiOp and salmon plan.

NW Delegation, Feds Air Views on Recovery Plans
Columbia Basin Bulletin, September 15, 2000

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