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Recovery Plans Fine-Tuned; to be Released Next Week

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - December 15, 2001

Federal officials plan to release the final Columbia Basin salmon restoration plan and biological opinion on the federal hydropower system as required under the Endangered Species Act next week.

The completion of the comprehensive plan will cap a four-year-long effort by regional offices of the National Marine Fisheries Service and other federal agencies in the Northwest to find ways to halt salmon and steelhead declines, which has resulted in declarations of 12 endangered and threatened populations in the basin.

As proposed in draft form in July, the lengthy documents spell out measures to improve hydropower, habitat, hatchery and harvest practices, operations and conditions. If those steps fail to increase survival of endangered salmon and steelhead to acceptable levels, which are spelled out in the plan, within five to eight years, removal of four dams on the lower Snake River would be considered as a last resort.

Regional agency heads plan to hold a telephone news conference and release the final documents on Wednesday or Thursday, Brian Gorman, NMFS regional public affairs official, said. The release date was postponed from today in order to clarify details of the plan, he said.

"Our position hasn't changed since July," Gorman said. "At this late date, we're not making changes in policy. We are responding to the many comments from the states, tribes and others, but for the most part, we are continuing in the same direction."

Details were fleshed out this week by several regional officials, who were brought to Washington, D.C., at the direction of CEQ Chairman George Frampton.

The non-breaching plan was developed by the Federal Caucus of nine regional federal agency offices with Frampton's approval. It was endorsed by Vice President Al Gore during the presidential campaign.

President Clinton leaves office on Jan. 20, when Republican Texas Gov. George W. Bush will be inaugurated. Bush campaigned in the Northwest against proposals to breach four federal dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington.

Frampton denied speculation that political considerations motivated his decision to delay or rework the final plan. Rather, Frampton and Gorman said more time was needed to clarify and add detail to performance standards and to the steps that would be taken if non-breaching solutions fail to improve fish survival or are not implemented.

"The standards need to be clear and understandable, and the consequences (of not meeting them) need to be clear and understandable," Frampton told the Oregonian earlier this week. "Our goal is to have the best possible document with the highest degree of integrity."

A Bonneville Power Administration official described the drafting work as mundane. "I don't think the issue was whether the standards were tough enough. It was clarity," the official said. The various federal agencies "still have our different views on what makes the most sense," the official added, but were not engaged in infighting or negotiating.

"I think the fights are over - they were essentially in July," Gorman said. The Fish and Wildlife Service, for example, took a stronger position in favor of dam removal, while the Army Corps of Engineers opposed that alternative.

The contested presidential race was not a factor, he said. "The outcome of the election played and will play absolutely no role in the timing," Frampton said before a Supreme Court ruling in Bush's favor. "We made a commitment to finishing this document during this administration, and we will do that no matter who is elected."

He and Gorman also denied the Clinton administration is making last minute changes that would "hard wire" or trigger such a move. Congress would have to authorize removal of the dams and provide the estimated $1 billion cost.

"There was some concern the language wasn't very clear, especially regarding performance standards and the consequences of failing to meet them," Gorman said. "I guess people assume if there is a last-minute delay, it's for nefarious reasons. The fact of the matter is, I think this boils down to putting complex scientific documents into good, clear English."

He noted the BiOp is legally required and is not being hurried to avoid "having it slop into next administration. We've got to do this thing by the end of the year, and we're going to do it."

NMFS had promised to issue a new biological opinion last year under a 1995 court case. After additional public meetings on the non-breaching plan, the Federal Caucus said it would be finished by the end of this year.

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, who has pushed for greater state involvement in the Federal Caucus, has called for a six-month delay of the BiOP and the plan. But other Northwest Republican critics have not objected to it being completed before Bush becomes president.

Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., is adamant in opposing any "hard-wiring" of a future breaching decision into the plan and that other projects to improve salmon survival begin as soon as possible to they have time to work before that option is reconsidered, a spokesman said. "As long as the plan is fairly consistent with earlier proposals this summer, he's not going create a whole new fight about this," press secretary Joe Sheffo said.

Smith's primary concern is that the plan focus on aggressive non breaching efforts and have timelines for getting them under way "so there is plenty of time to make an assessment of their effectiveness," Sheffo said.

If the plan is acceptable, the senator's advice to the Bush administration would be to give it a chance to work, he said. Smith will not comment on the final plan until it is released and has not been told what changes have been made, if any, Sheffo said.

Gorman said he expected lawsuits to be filed against the BiOp "because this is a document that affects virtually every vested interest in the region," such as utilities, farmers, environmentalists, fishermen, Indian tribes with treaty fishing rights, ports and shippers. "We're likely to be the subject of a bunch of lawsuits. I'm sure we'll make everybody unhappy."

As proposed in draft documents in July, the plan sets forth a comprehensive package of proposed actions, along with performance standards and periodic progress reviews, but does not recommend dam removal. The actions would be carried out by federal, state, tribal and local officials, to improve conditions affecting anadromous fish throughout their life cycle. Improvements would be made in the federal hydropower system, hatchery operations and practices, habitat conditions in tributaries and the Columbia River estuary and fish harvest.

"We're setting up very specific performance standards with specific schedules for checking on them and the progress we're making," Gorman said. "All of this is directed at restoring salmon, improving habitat and doing some major fixes to hatchery and harvest management schemes."

The final plan retained provisions to review progress in three, five and eight years and to require the dam operating agencies - the Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration and Bureau of Reclamation - to develop one-year and five-year implementation plans.

The outyear reviews will check whether the agencies followed through on commitments, including obtaining funding for projects from Congress. The reviews also will evaluate whether biological goals have been met in terms of relative improvement in survival rates or slowing or halting of declines, Gorman said. Because of the fish's two- to three-year life cycles it is "highly unlikely we're going to turn it around in three years," Gorman said. Thus, the checks at five and eight years are considered to be the most crucial in determining whether the plan is working or whether the breaching option should be revived.

The final plan does not require the acquisition of additional stream flows from the upper Snake River system in Idaho to aid downstream salmon migration. Any additional flow augmentation would come from savings resulting from the current Snake River water rights adjudication.

The plan calls for negotiations with Canada to attempt to gain additional flows from the upper Columbia River, a BPA official said.

Coordination would be enhanced between federal agencies' efforts to recover listed salmon and the Northwest Power Council's fish and wildlife program, which mitigates for effects of federal dams, the official said. The council's annual approval process would be synchronized with habitat and hatchery improvement projects that would be funded by Bonneville Power in agreement with NMFS. The federal agencies would propose projects in time for the Power Council and its scientific advisory board to review them before they receive final federal approval. Any conflicts over projects between the Power Council and federal agencies would be resolved informally.

Regional federal officials who worked on the plan in Washington, D.C., this week included Brian Brown, chief of NMFS' hydropower division, Doug Arndt, of the Army Corps of Engineers' Northwestern District fish management division, and Lori Bodi, special advisor to the CEO of the Bonneville Power Administration.

Gorman said the final documents probably will be posted on the Federal Caucus' web page on Wednesday or Thursday morning. Then, the regional heads of NMFS, the Fish and Wildlife Service, BPA and perhaps other agencies plan to hold a telephone news conference in the afternoon.

The caucus heads planned to discuss the details in their weekly telephone conference today, he said.

Barry Espenson
Recovery Plans Fine-Tuned; to be Released Next Week
Columbia Basin Bulletin, December 15, 2001

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