U.S. Proposal Provides
by Scott Learn
Salmon - The plan would rule out breaching dams on the Columbia or Snake rivers
The government's top federal fish agency endorsed a plan Wednesday that would spend $1 billion extra over 10 years to try to save Northwest salmon and steelhead.
But the draft plan stops short of breaching dams or increasing water spilled to help wild fish in the Columbia and Snake river systems compared with releases in the past two years.
NOAA Fisheries' draft biological opinion would give the largest set of power-generating dams in the region an all-clear to continue operating despite damage done to the Northwest's largest salmon runs.
It comes on the orders of U.S. District Judge James Redden, who threw out two previous salmon recovery plans after ruling they didn't go far enough. Redden has hinted at severe limits on dam operations if the third plan doesn't pass muster.
Bob Lohn, the agency's Northwest region administrator, said the latest draft relies on a far more meticulous study of the 13 salmon and steelhead runs on the Columbia and the Snake listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The draft plan would provide new equipment to detour fish around deadly dam turbines, manage spills to better match when fish are present, fine-tune hatchery programs, restore salmon habitat in tributaries, and control birds, sea lions and fish that prey on salmon. The extra cost probably would increase power rates.
The plan is designed to ensure that the seven runs upriver of the Bonneville Dam -- the runs most threatened by dam operations -- are "trending toward recovery," Lohn said.
"That doesn't mean recovery by the end of the decade," he said. "But we want to see substantial strides made."
Critics of the plan, including environmentalists and sport and commercial fishing groups, say they've heard such promises before. In general, they favor breaching the four Lower Snake River dams and increasing spills at other dams.
Overall, wild salmon have fallen to 5 percent of their historic numbers in the Northwest, and salmon advocates say the region is running out of time.
The federal government is "dancing around the elephant on the table" by refusing to address dam breaching, said Glen Spain, northwest regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "As a region, do we want to keep throwing money down a rat hole or move in a more positive direction?"
Terry Flores, executive director of Northwest River Partners, whose membership includes farmers and electric utilities, agreed that the dams are "a big problem." But the plan takes significant steps to reduce their damage to fish, she said, and breaching dams would cut hydropower generation and hurt barge operators and ports.
NOAA Fisheries will issue a final opinion, likely early next year, after environmental groups, tribes and other parties to a lawsuit challenging salmon protection efforts comment. After that, the plan will go before Redden again for a thumbs up or down.
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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