Officials say Fish are
by Eric Barker
Plans to help salmon do not include breaching dams
Federal officials charged with protecting threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead have determined plans to operate dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers do not jeopardize survival of the fish.
But the plans to operate the dams do that only by including 73 extra actions, costing hundreds of millions of dollars intended to protect the fish and lay the groundwork for their recovery.
"We agree operation of the hydro system by itself would jeopardize listed fish, but there is a detailed set of additional actions, which if carried out, should avoid jeopardy to listed fish," said Bob Lohn, regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries, the agency in charge of protecting salmon and steelhead.
Those extra actions include: spilling water over the dams to help juvenile fish reach the ocean; improving habitat in the rivers, their tributaries and the Columbia River estuary; altering dams to help juvenile fish pass more easily; reforming hatchery practices; and continuing to limit predation by other fish, birds and sea mammals.
Dam breaching was not included as a possible measure to help the salmon. Lohn said breaching would help only four of the 13 listed species and would not be enough to recover those that would benefit. He also noted that in a previous court ruling, the agency was admonished for including fish-friendly actions not reasonably certain to occur. He said dam breaching fits in that category.
"Removal of the dams is not under authority of the federal action agencies," he said.
The documents issued Wednesday, known as biological opinions, are a court-ordered redo of the federal government's plan to mesh dam operations with the needs of the listed fish. Judge James Redden of Portland, Ore., has twice discarded previous plans for not doing enough to stop the decline of salmon and steelhead.
Lohn said the two draft biological opinions, one for the upper Snake River and one for the lower Snake and Columbia rivers, include extensive analysis of each of the 13 listed fish species as well as subgroups of the listed runs. "The picture that emerged is not pretty, but it is hopeful," he said.
The dam operation plans, compiled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration, collectively known as the action agencies, outline hydro system operations for the next 10 years on the Lower Snake and Columbia rivers and the next 27 years on the upper Snake River in southern Idaho. Although he does not expect the actions to lead to recovery of the species in the 10 years covered by the first portion of the plan, he is hopeful the actions will be the first step in recovery of the fish.
"We want to see substantial strides made by the end of decade. We want to be able to point to all of (evolutionary significant units) and say they are significantly better of because of work done under this opinion."
In its analysis Lohn said the agency took a conservative approach and assumed poor ocean conditions would be experienced in most of the next 22 years. But in reality he said poor ocean conditions occur in about half the years with good ocean conditions in the remaining years.
"We think it is important that we not assume the best," Lohn said.
The plans were praised by most dam supporters as the best yet to keep the dams while protecting the fish.
"It certainly looks like this new BiOp (biological opinion) will rebuild endangered fish runs while maintaining the many economic benefits of the Columbia and Snake River dams," said Glenn Vanselow, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association based in Portland.
But the plans were panned by environmental groups, fishing organizations and Indian tribes as a repackaging of previous failed attempts to mesh dam operation with fish recovery.
"I think it is at best a lot of the old stuff we have seen that doesn't seem to be working and it's a rollback on some of the stuff that does seem to be having an impact," said Nicole Cordan, policy and legal director for the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition at Portland.
In particular, she said the plans could lead to less water being spilled at dams during August when juvenile fall chinook are migrating to the ocean and will shorten the time water will be spilled at Snake River dams in the spring while juvenile spring chinook are making their trek to the ocean. "I think they did this plan on what the hydro system could handle and not based on what the science says the fish need," she said. "That is not OK under the Endangered Species Act."
Dustin Aherin of the Lewiston based Citizens for Progress, an affiliate of the Portland group, said by not looking at dam breaching the plans won't succeed over the long haul.
"This isn't a long term solution, this is a 10-year mandate on the problem," he said. "It's sort of slowing down extinction, but extinction is still going to happen."
Samuel N. Penney, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe's executive committee, said the tribe will carefully review the biological opinion and offer criticism aimed at protecting fish and the tribe's treaty fishing rights.
The biological opinion on the upper Snake River dams will allow the tribe's settlement agreement with the federal government and state of Idaho to be implemented. But Penney said he is disappointed the biological opinion on the lower Snake and Columbia river hydro system did not include a look at dam breaching, something the tribe supports.
"We are extremely concerned that the federal government has taken Snake River dam breaching off the table," he said. "We continue to believe that breaching the four lower Snake River dams and investing in local communities is the best biological and economic alternative for restoring healthy, harvestable levels of Snake River salmon."
The draft biological opinions are open to comment by those party to the litigation that led Judge Redden to overturn the previous plan. Once a final opinion is released, those unhappy with it can ask Redden to look at it.
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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