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Politics may Trump Science in Upcoming BIOP

by Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter, May 23, 2000

Action agencies (Bonneville Power Administration, Bureau of Reclamation, Corps of Engineers) got their first look last Friday at the draft hydro BiOp, last promised by NMFS for public view on May 22. By all accounts they weren't very happy with the document, which is intended to be the blueprint that spells out hydro operations and fish recovery measures for the next 10 years.

Sources have said that high agency officals feel blind-sided by the draft's language setting goals for major improvements in all seven index stocks of Snake spring chinook over the next five years. If the goals aren't achieved, then NMFS would recommend that Congress approve breaching lower Snake dams. The draft policy contradicts NMFS' own scientists, who have said another ten years' worth of research is needed to help resolve critical uncertainties about salmon recovery.

The public may finally get to see the document around the middle of June, after a week of agency review followed by a couple of weeks of perusal by state agencies and tribes. Originally, NMFS had aimed to have a new BiOp in place by April, to guide this year's operations. But with the end of the development process in sight, the "I love you" virus hit many regional computers, said NMFS spokesman Eric Ostrovsky, causing more delay.

Sources say that most hydro ops will be pretty similar to those that have been in effect since 1995, when the last BiOp took effect, spreading the risk for fish between inriver and barging strategies because of continued uncertainties about the value of each route. But there is one big difference: the new BiOp will contain performance standards that spell out some new goals for fish survival. Insiders say that BPA will be on the hook to boost current inriver fish survivals (estimated at around 60 percent) by about another 30 percent--requiring the agency to make major improvements in the other H's of habitat, harvest and hatcheries. It's all based on the hypothesis that without the dams, more than 80 percent of the Snake River spring chinook would make it to the estuary.

Some of the benefits may not kick in for some time. Sources say the BiOp doesn't figure much of a boost from habitat restoration until 50 years from now.

The bombshell on the breaching issue dropped quietly last week during a May 19 conference call involving NMFS, White House officials and state representatives, and billed by the Clinton Administration as a briefing to Northwest states on federal efforts to restore salmon. In a press release issued later that day, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality George Frampton said that performance measures would be used to gauge salmon recovery efforts, along with a "trigger" mechanism that will put the dam breaching question before Congress, "if, within a certain number of years, it is clear that recovery targets are not being met."

Frampton said that while the science suggests that dam breaching could significantly benefit salmon recovery, "it also suggests that other methods might lead to recovery. In other words, the science does not clearly indicate that breaching is the only possible option; nor does it allow us to take that option off the table."

Sources indicate the draft BiOp gives the hydro system only five years to meet the targets before the question would go to Congress, a situation that has action agencies sputtering over the latest NMFS directives. But others say the breaching clause was added at the eleventh hour to head off any potential lawsuits that might allege the feds were not doing all they could to help the fish.

Frampton's press release also said that, given the scientific uncertainties, "the best course is to pursue all other reasonable options while preparing to undertake breaching, if it proves necessary." The proposed strategy calls for work to begin "immediately" on technical studies that would be part of any breaching recommendation to Congress, along with a plan to mitigate economic impacts.

The release also said the new BiOp and the federal caucus' All-H paper will help shape the Corps of Engineers' feasibility study on future operations on the lower Snake. The Corps has promised a preferred alternative in its final EIS, after pressure from Administration officials kept the Corps from selecting a non-breaching alternative in its 4,000-page draft EIS issued last December.

NMFS was pushing for more water as well. Montana NWPPC member Stan Grace, who was on the call, said NMFS regional administrator Will Stelle told participants that more water for flow augmentation in the Columbia system was being discussed and Canada was a possible source. Grace said Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, the only chief exec from the Northwest on the line, told them that he supported an intense recovery effort over the next few years, but if it didn't begin work to recover fish, the dams should be taken out in five years.

Water was on other brains last week as environmental groups sought an injunction to stop alleged illegal irrigation diversions by the Bureau of Reclamation in both the Snake and Columbia rivers. The Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund led the effort in Portland District Court, citing the earlier NMFS BiOp and updates to it as calling for more Snake River water than the 427,000 acre-feet now released. A hearing is expected in mid-July with a ruling by federal salmon judge Malcolm Marsh to come sometime later.

Bill Rudolph
Politics may Trump Science in Upcoming BIOP
NW Fishletter, May 23, 2000

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