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Commentaries and editorials

Idaho, Water Users Challenge Federal Recovery Plan

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - October 20, 2000

Idaho water users, and the state itself, have challenged proposed federal salmon recovery plans, saying the strategy has the potential to bleed the Upper Snake River's farming economy with no proven benefit to fish listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The Idaho Water Users and Committee of Nine also claim that the federal plan inappropriately includes operations of Upper Snake River federal dams in an assessment that says the survival of listed Columbia Basin species is jeopardized by hydrosystem operations.

Comments from the state of Idaho and the Idaho Water Users are among the most voluminous received regarding a draft Federal Columbia River Power System biological opinion released July 27, according to National Marine Fisheries Service officials. The federal agency will weigh comments from states, tribes and others as it prepares a final BiOp, which is anticipated in December.

The draft judged that proposed federal hydrosystem operations posed jeopardy to the survival of eight of the 12 Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead "evolutionarily significant units" listed under the Endangered Species Act, including four Snake river salmon or steelhead runs. The NMFS document outlines a series of "reasonable and prudent alternatives" to proposed hydrosystem operations that the agency says are necessary to avoid jeopardizing those stocks.

The document also describes "off-site" mitigation measures it feels necessary to improve salmon survivals to the point that jeopardy can be avoided. Those proposals to improve harvest and hatchery practices and habitat, as well as hydro passage, are described in a companion document, "Basinwide Salmon Recovery Strategy," produced by a caucus of federal agencies.

The BiOp takes into account the 14 facilities that make up the FCRPS but also include 29 Bureau of Reclamation projects, many of which fuel recreation and agricultural irrigation in Idaho as well as provide power.

The state and Idaho Water Users say the FCRPS and the other projects should not be linked in the draft BiOp. The IWU comments pointed out that a 1999 biological opinion of the Upper Snake River BOR projects did not find that operations posted jeopardy to listed species. Operations of those facilities have not changed, either since passage of the ESA in 1973 nor since that December 1999 BiOp, according to the IWU and state.

"Because operation of the Upper Snake BOR projects does not cause jeopardy, there is no basis for the reasonable and prudent alternatives (RPAs) for these projects identified in the Draft BiOpů," according the IWU summary of comments on the draft 2000 NMFS BiOp.

"The Draft BiOp violates the ESA by failing to identify the actions of specific projects that cause jeopardy to the listed species or adversely affect their habitat. The 43 projects encompassed by the Draft BiOp are not all interrelated or interdependent. At the very least, the Upper Snake BOR projects must be treated individually or collectively in the BiOp or in a separate consultation," the IWU wrote. The group represented 300 canal companies, irrigation districts, water districts, agri-businesses and professional organizations, municipal public water suppliers and others. The Committee of Nine is an advisory committee for Idaho's largest water district.

The state in its comments said that NMFS has the obligation under the ESA to determine effects of particular actions to determine if they pose jeopardy to listed species.

"The state of Idaho respectfully suggests that because of these factors, the upper Snake River Bureau projects should be addressed in a separate BiOp."

The state claims factual errors and flawed logic in the draft BiOp's assessment of the BOR operations effects on the Lower Snake River because it "focuses on the time that reservoir storage is released during the irrigation season."

The state comments say BOR water storage operations actually decrease natural flows in winter, not in spring, summer and fall when they might affect salmon migration in the lower Snake and Columbia rivers. Return flows through irrigation "actually have the effect of increasing flows during the fall chinook migration period," according to the state comments.

The state and IWU say there has been "no dramatic downward trend in Snake River flows" since 1916 when many of the Upper Snake reservoirs were constructed with a slight reduction in the spring migration period and a slight increase during the summer migration period.

"Moreover any impact from Bureau operations is insignificant relative to the effects of the mainstem FCRPS projects on river velocity and other hydrologic characteristics of the Lower Snake and Columbia rivers.

"Based on this information, NMFS' conclusion that the Bureau's operations in the upper Snake River jeopardize listed species is erroneous," according to Idaho's BiOp comments.

The IWU comments and those from the state of Idaho also challenge BiOp's prescription for augmentation flows that draw water from BOR reservoirs.

"There is no scientific foundation for conclusions in the Draft BiOp that Upper Snake flow augmentation will provide biological benefits for the listed species. The purported flow/survival relations for fall chinook above Lower Granite is unfounded and there is evidence that flow augmentation from the Upper Snake BOR projects is actually detrimental to the listed species," according to the IWU.

Idaho summary comments on the "All-H" recovery strategy second that notion, saying the state "continues to question whether more water needed by Idaho irrigators and municipalities should be spared to satisfy and unsubstantiated biological benefit. To Idaho, the assets dedicated to answering these questions are only one factor in what must be, out of necessity, a regional effort in improving the vitality of the species."

The Idaho comments stresses that "no water will be dedicated for flow augmentation except as pursuant to state law" and urges in its summary comments that state law and processes be respected by the federal government. That respect must be extended to property, as well as water rights, if the federal 'All H' strategy is to succeed.

Idaho's BiOp comments "question the propriety of requiring flow augmentation from the Bureau's upper Snake River Basin projects under the ESA.

"The state remains committed to good faith negotiations of water rights issues with stakeholders as part of the Snake River Basin Adjudication. These negotiations provide the most effective means for addressing the federal agencies' flow augmentation objectives because all stakeholders are involved."

Idaho, which submitted comments in excess of 80 pages plus appendices on both the BiOp and recovery strategy, said that it agreed hydrosystem BiOp measures must be part of a larger recovery plan that includes habitat, harvest and hatchery changes.

"We are concerned, however, that off-site mitigation will tend to shift the burden of conservation from the hydropower system to the other sectors. In addition, some of the survival benefits attributed to off-site mitigation, particularly in the habitat sector, are not scientifically supported," Idaho wrote in its summary comments on the BiOp.

"And, the BiOp's current approach to off-site mitigation calls for an overly-prescriptive approach to habitat issues and an unwarranted intrusion by the action agencies, particularly the Bonneville Power Administration, into non-hydropower arenas."

Comments from the state of Montana too expressed concern about achieving a balance between the needs of salmon and upstream fish and wildlife species as federal facilities plan water flow regimes.

"Montana continues to have concerns with recommendations to draft reservoirs in Montana to provide flows that have speculative biological benefits. This is particularly concerning when the impacts on resources in Montana are quite certain and in most cases clearly documented by our scientists," according to BiOp comments signed by Patrick J. Graham, director of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

"The development of Integrated Rule Curves (IRC) was precisely for this purpose. It concerns us that there continues to be little recognition of the importance of protecting river and reservoir ecosystems in Montana by restricting deep reservoir drawdowns and unnatural river fluctuations. We are hopeful that the development and application of biologically based performance standards in this BO will improve measurement and evaluation of the biological benefits to salmon and provide a basis for comparison with the measured impacts that Montana has documented in the development of the IRCs."

The MDFWP comments strongly support supports the proposed implementation of VARQ operations that it says will "help to provide additional water in both Libby and Hungry Horse (reservoirs) that will help provide a more equitable balance between the needs of salmon, bull trout, sturgeon and resident fish." The bull trout and white sturgeon are listed resident fish species whose habitats can be affected by fluctuating flows when the Montana reservoirs are called on to release water to meet the needs of salmon downstream.

The MDFWP asked that the state be given the opportunity to consult with NMFS and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reach a final agreement on the specific requirements for Hungry Horse and Libby reservoirs.

According to NMFS officials, comments submitted on its hydrosystem biological will be posed on its web site.

Link information:
Federal Caucus:
Idaho Comments of Draft 2000 FCRPS BiOp

by Barry Espenson
Idaho, Water Users Challenge Federal Recovery Plan
Columbia Basin Bulletin, October 20, 2000

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