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Information on Final Biological Opinion

by Rocky Barker
The Idaho Statesman, December 22, 2000

The National Marine Fisheries Service issued its final biological opinion on the operation of the Columbia and Snake River hydroelectric dam operations.

What is a biological opinion?

A biological opinion is an assessment of the effects of a federal action -- such as operating dams -- on endangered species, in this case 12 stocks of salmon and steelhead that live in the 266,000-square-mile Columbia River watershed.

What did the opinion say?

It said dam operations jeopardize the survival of the salmon but that a series of "reasonable and prudent" alternatives can offset the harmful effects of the dams.

What are those alternatives?

The agency outlined a suite of actions throughout the watershed to aid salmon. The actions include protecting habitat, reducing harvests, improving the hydroelectric system and reducing the detrimental effects of introducing hatchery salmon into the wild.

How will the success of these efforts be judged?

If federal agencies haven't done what they promised in three years, fisheries officials will order more restrictions to save endangered salmon and steelhead in the Columbia and Snake rivers.

And if salmon populations don't show improvement in five and eight years, authorities will urge Congress to breach four dams on the Snake River in Washington.

How much will the program cost?

Officials estimate salmon recovery may cost federal taxpayers and customers of the Bonneville Power Administration, which sells electricity generated by the dams, $525 million a year. That's an increase of $100 million to $200 million a year over what's now spent.

Environmental groups say that when state and private costs, and costs from other agencies, are included, the costs could rise to more than twice that amount.

How much electric power is lost?

The Bonneville Power Administration estimates it could produce another 900 megawatts of electricity if it wasn't constrained by fish and wildlife considerations. That's enough electricity to light 600,000 homes. The new program removes another 60 megawatts.

If the dams were breached, the system would lose 1,200 megawatts of generating capacity, the amount of electricity used by Seattle.

What's behind the decision?

A federal judge ordered the federal agencies to develop a stricter comprehensive plan in 1995. The biological opinion and the federal consultation is required by the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

What does the law say?

Only Congress or the rarely convened Endangered Species Committee can choose to allow a species to become extinct. Experts disagree about how much needs to be done to restore the 12 endangered stocks of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin. But few doubt the mandate of the Endangered Species Act will continue to force a difficult transition in the lives of the people of the Pacific Northwest.

Rocky Barker
Information on Final Biological Opinion
The Idaho Statesman, December 22, 2000

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