Biologists for Agency
by Felicity Barringer
SAN FRANCISCO - Federal fisheries officials in Seattle on Wednesday endorsed, with minor modifications, a plan for the government's continued operation of the hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. They said it did not jeopardize the survival of 13 stocks of salmon and steelhead that the government must protect under the Endangered Species Act.
The endorsement, a draft analysis from the National Marine Fisheries Service, agreed with dozens of proposed protective actions that would provide enhanced measures to get juvenile fish past the dams as they swim seaward, improve habitat in the river and discourage predators like California sea lions and Caspian terns.
Wednesday's draft represents the fisheries agency's third effort to find a binding, legally acceptable solution to the Northwest's tug of war between salmon and dams.
The agencies operating the dams are required by law to consult with federal biologists about their impact on endangered and threatened species and what they intend to do about it.
The opinion by the fisheries service, a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, made no mention of the possibility of removing four dams on the lower Snake River that sit on the annual migration route of some of the more imperiled species. Many environmentalists and scientists see these four dams as the deadliest obstacle these fish face.
Federal officials said the new plan's approach to the recovery of the 13 stocks was significantly different from an approach they offered three years ago. That plan, which like Wednesday's is called a "biological opinion," was struck down by a federal judge as violating the Endangered Species Act. A federal appeals court upheld that ruling this year.
Judge James A. Redden of Federal District Court in Portland, Ore., who has presided over the issue, has made clear he is willing to step in and direct the dams' operation if he believes it is the only way to protect the fish. In a court hearing this summer, Judge Redden said: "I'm going to be very picky because I want a bi-op that works. This is a very, very, very, very important document." Bob Lohn, the northwest regional administrator of the fisheries service, said in a conference call on Wednesday that the plan had been prepared with much more collaboration with interested groups like Indian tribes and commercial interests. Mr. Lohn added, "This plan is based on a much more detailed approach to the problem," taking into account the needs of six dozen subgroups of fish.
But environmentalists say the plan retreats from the status quo on one crucial issue. It permits reductions in the amount of water released from the dams that allows juvenile fish quick passage past them and away from the deadly turbines. Judge Redden has set release amounts since 2005.
The opinion was condemned by environmental groups, from the Sierra Club to a regional group, Save Our Wild Salmon, as doing more for the Bonneville Power Administration than for the 13 troubled fish runs, two of which have very few wild fish left to reproduce outside hatcheries.
The only difference between this plan and the two earlier ones rejected by the courts, they said, is the presentation, not the bottom line. "It's the same pig in a different tutu, but it still can't dance," said Todd True, a lawyer for Earthjustice who represents environmentalists in this dispute.
Steve Wright, administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration, said in the conference call that the modifications made to mitigate the dams' impact on fish would cost about $1 billion over the next 10 years. Were the four Lower Snake River dams to be breached, he said, the annual cost of replacing the lost power would be at least $450 million.
The opinions and supporting documents are available here.
Idaho's Sockeye: FCRPS Biological Opinion NOAA Fisheries' Executive Summary, 10/31/7
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