by Nate Poppino
HAGERMAN - In a series of raceways just north of the Snake River, 1.4 million steelhead are preparing for a long trek, a race down the Snake and Columbia rivers to the Pacific Ocean.
The steelhead, released every April from the Hagerman National Fish Hatchery, aren't bred to bolster their species. They're released as mitigation for the losses to regional fisheries caused by four lower Snake River dams in Washington state. And like the hatchery workers who raise them, they've been in the perfect position to watch the ongoing fight over saving their species and possibly breaching those four dams.
On Tuesday, lawyers for the Obama administration announced that federal officials will continue to defend a plan proposed last year to help Pacific Northwest populations of Chinook salmon and steelhead recover. But the debate over the day's announcement soon focused again on Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor dams, long the targets of environmental groups who first challenged the government's approach to salmon and steelhead recovery nearly a decade ago.
Tuesday's filing in federal court in Oregon came after several months of reviews of the Bush-era plan. Pledging to support the 2008 proposal, the administration added an adaptive-management piece in which declines in the fish populations would trigger a variety of management actions. Dam-breaching would be one of those and a last-ditch approach, though the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would be required right away to plan how to study the effects of removing them.
Excerpts from Adaptive Management Implementation Plan (AMIP): bluefish text in redThrough numerous references in the filing, it's apparent that Obama officials sought to respond to a May letter from U.S. District Judge James A. Redden that questioned aspects of the Bush plan. But environmentalists opposing the plan concluded the administration still fell short of addressing the judge's concerns.
By March 2010, the Corps in coordination with NOAA Fisheries and the other Action Agencies will complete a "Study Plan" for breaching of lower Snake River dams. The Study Plan will detail the scope, schedule and budget to conduct and complete technical studies and decision-making process, including the following:
Dam breaching technical studies identified in the Study Plan would be initiated by the Corps if one of these three conditions applies:
- Aquatic ecosystem effects (e.g., resident fish, biological analysis of anadromous fish using results from life-cycle model analyses, potential changes in hatchery and habitat programs, and other additional relevant technical evaluations)
- Socio-economic effects (e.g., hydropower replacement, navigation, recreation, etc.)
- Other environmental effects (sediment, water quality, air quality, etc.)
- Additional engineering analyses (e.g., rock source explorations for rip-rap, and additional modeling of the by-pass channel)
- an All-H analysis, including life-cycle modeling results, identifies lower Snake River dam breaching as necessary to address and alleviate the biological trigger conditions for the applicable Snake River species (Idaho's Sockeye are specifically excluded);
- the analysis is sufficiently inconclusive to identify what actions are necessary to address and alleviate the biological trigger conditions for the applicable Snake River species; or
- the analysis is not completed within six months of the biological trigger being tripped, with a completion goal of four months.
Beginning with the availability of 2009 data, NOAA and the Action Agencies are establishing:
Issue Resolution Process
- An Early Warning Indicator: This indicator will alert NOAA Fisheries and the Action Agencies to a decline in a species' abundance level for natural-origin adults that warrants further scrutiny because it indicates that a Significant Decline (see below) may be reached in one to two years. The indicator for each species will be a running four-year mean of adult abundances that falls below a 20% likelihood of occurrence.
Within 120 days of NOAA Fisheries' determining that the Early Warning Indicator abundance levels have been observed, the Action Agencies, in coordination with NOAA Fisheries, the RIOG, and other regional parties will determine whether the species in question is likely to decline to a level that will trip the Significant Decline Trigger. This evaluation will be based on additional indicators and predictors of status (e.g., jack counts, ocean conditions, and habitat disturbances). If the early implementation of Rapid Response Action(s) is warranted, the evaluation will determine which actions to take. The Action Agencies will implement the Rapid Response Actions as soon as practicable, but no later than 12 months from the date the indicator is observed.
- A Significant Decline Trigger: Each year, the federal agencies will check for a significant decline in the natural abundance of the species. A significant decline is judged to occur when the running four-year mean of natural-origin adult abundance falls below a 10% likelihood of occurrence based on historical data (see Appendix 4, Table 1 for these thresholds). The principle underlying the Significant Decline Trigger is that these thresholds represent significant deviations from the biological expectations in the 2008 BiOp.
Within 90 days of NOAA Fisheries determining that the Significant Decline Trigger has been tripped, the Action Agencies, in coordination with NOAA Fisheries, the RIOG, and other regional parties will determine what Rapid Response Actions to take. The Rapid Response Actions will be implemented as soon as practicable, but no later than 12 months from the date the trigger is tripped. Rapid Response and Long-term Contingency Actions will be periodically reviewed to determine whether the actions continue to be necessary and if so, whether alternative actions might be more beneficial.
Concurrent with the initiation of efforts to determine what Rapid Response Actions will be taken, the Action Agencies will initiate an All-H Diagnosis informed by life-cycle modeling of potential Long-term Contingency Actions. Within four to six months after the Significant Decline Trigger is tripped, the Action Agencies (in coordination with NOAA Fisheries, the RIOG, and other regional parties) will complete this analysis and determine if the Rapid Response Action(s) are likely to be sufficient or if Long-term Contingency Actions (other than lower Snake River dam breaching, see below) will need to be implemented and if so, what Long-term Contingency Actions will be implemented. If necessary, those Long-term contingency actions will be implemented as soon as practicable.
Decisions about the development of the Significant Decline Trigger and Early Warning Indicator and whether the trigger or indicator have been tripped or observed are ultimately the responsibility of NOAA Fisheries. Decisions regarding the implementation of Rapid Response and Long-term Contingency Actions are the responsibility of the Action Agencies. However, the federal agencies will endeavor to continue to use collaboration with regional sovereigns and stakeholders to address issues before any decisions are made and to work collaboratively within the federal agencies to assure decision-making is coordinated. Where there are disputes between the federal agencies that are not resolved regionally, or as in the case of lower Snake River dam breaching where significant national issues are at stake, issues will be elevated to the Administration and resolved at the appropriate level.
Greg Stahl, assistant policy director for suit plaintiff Idaho Rivers United, said Tuesday morning that the plan was simply a "veiled attempt" to get the 2008 biological opinion past the judge. Returning again to the issue of the dams, he argued that acres of pristine spawning habitat in Idaho will still run short of fish because their migration route is plugged.
"They use words like 'long-term contingency,'" Stahl said, pointing to the trigger actions. "Well, there is a significant decline -- These species are listed as endangered, and the majority of the fish that return are raised in hatcheries. The alarm is being raised right now."
Other Idaho water users reacted positively to the news. The Coalition for Idaho Water, made up of more than 50 groups representing various water users, has fought for years to keep Redden from ordering more water spilled over federal dams on the upper Snake, including Palisades, Ririe and Minidoka.
Speaking for the coalition, Norm Semanko applauded the Obama officials for abiding by state water law and the "willing seller" provisions of the plan and the Nez Perce Agreement that govern how water can be acquired in the upper Snake River.
U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, also welcomed the announcement and stated he agrees with Obama that all other options must be tried before dam-breaching is even considered, calling discussion of the topic "divisive." U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., took that argument one step further, blasting the president and his advisors for even mentioning it in the plan.
"The Obama administration's resurrection of dam removal has likely doomed the Northwest to years and years of fighting off attacks on our dams," said Hastings, the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, in a statement. "It is such a sad, terrible waste that this battle is being reignited, but let there be no doubt that we'll fight to save our dams in every way we can."
At the Hagerman hatchery, run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, project leader Bryan Kenworthy is affected little by the court battle raging to the West. And though he acknowledged that things may change should the dams finally be taken down, he also expressed his faith that his services will be needed in one way or another. After all, demand for Pacific-coast fish will still be more than what fisheries can provide, even if the steelhead recover.
"I see that hatcheries are going to have a role in producing fish," Kenworthy said.
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