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Columbia Salmon Recovery Efforts Stall

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, March (?), 2002

The U.S. government has fallen behind in carrying out ambitious measures designed to save Columbia Basin salmon while keeping in place four massive hydropower dams on the Snake River.

That assertion, made last week by conservationists, goes undisputed by federal officials.

"It's pretty clear that there are some things that are not on target," said Brian Brown, hydrosystem manager for the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency responsible for salmon restoration. "We know we are behind." Still, Brown and other federal officials maintain they are solidly on-track. They say the federal government remains committed to using a wide range of measures, including the restoration of small rivers and streams and the reform of hatchery operations, to restore salmon without breaching the four dams in eastern Washington.

"I believe the federal agencies are making a serious, concerted effort to get these actions done," said Lorraine Bodi of the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal agency that markets electric power from Columbia Basin dams and spends more than $200 million a year on salmon recovery.

The salmon-saving effort is guided by a blueprint that was released in December 2000 after agencies spent five years and tens of millions of dollars evaluating whether breaching the dams -- removing their earthen sections to allow the Snake River to flow swiftly -- is needed to save four runs of salmon and steelhead that spawn in Idaho.

The four Snake River populations are among 12 Columbia Basin runs listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The blueprint is important be cause it offers a way to save those salmon without removing the dams. That action, which would render the dams incapable of generating electricity and would make the Snake River unnavigable by wheat-carrying barges, is strongly opposed by farmers, industrial power customers and others.

But the blueprint requires results. One section of the document says that if the plan is not being properly carried out by 2003, or if salmon are not returning in sufficient numbers by 2005 and 2008, the federal government must again consider breaching the dams.

Save Our Wild Salmon, a conservation group, evaluated progress made on 129 separate measures in the blueprint that it said should be partly or completely accomplished by the end of 2001. The group gave the federal government a passing grade on 28 of those 129 measures, or just over a fifth. It gave an "incomplete" on 56 measures; and it failed the federal government on 45 measures.

"We found the federal government is really behind on implementing this plan," said Nicole Cordan, policy director for Save Our Wild Salmon. "Come 2003 or 2005, if we continue on this path, we are staring dam removal in the face." The organization, a coalition of conservation and business groups, is an advocate of dam breaching.

Save Our Wild Salmon found deficiencies in implementing six major areas of the blueprint, including measures intended to improve water quality, to make the dams safer for outmigrating salmon, to restore tributaries and to improve hatcheries to make them less harmful to wild fish.

In particular, the report faulted the federal government for operating the dams last spring and summer in a way that maximized electricity production even if that meant harming salmon and steelhead.

Federal officials acknowledged that last year's near record drought, the water volume in the Columbia River was the second-lowest since record-keeping began, in 1929 -- hurt their salmon-recovery effort. But they said they did the best job they could for both fish and regional power needs during a difficult year.

"Getting hit by a drought right out of the gate made things far more complicated," said Brian Gorman, a fisheries service spokesman.

The Bonneville Power Administration declared a power emergency last year -- an action permitted under the salmon plan -- and sent far less water over spillways than is normally required. That water was instead sent through electricity-generating turbines, which harm young salmon and steelhead by subjecting them to impacts and rapid pressure changes.

Agency officials say they sought to reduce harm to salmon by spilling some water during migration peaks, when the largest numbers of young fish were at the dams, and by maximizing the use of barges to get salmon downstream. Many biologists say that salmon do better in barges than in the river during drought years, when river water is warm and moving slowly.

Last year's drought also set back the implementation of the plan because it consumed so much time and effort, said Brown of the fisheries service. For example, he said, the fisheries service biologists did not have time to coordinate with states on tribes on meeting deadlines for completing one and five-year strategies required by the salmon plan.

"We anticipated active involvement with the states and tribes," Brown said. "We didn't give this time and attention because of the emergency."

The federal government is conducting its own evaluation of how well the salmon plan is being implemented and will release that evaluation in about a month, Brown said. He said it looks like Save Our Wild Salmon delivered an overly negative review. "It remains to be seen how behind we are," he said.

Erich Bloch, one of two representatives of Gov. John Kitzhaber on the Northwest Power Planning Council, agreed with conservationists that the federal government has fallen behind on its salmon plan.

"It you read (the salmon plan) it looks good," Bloch said. "But if you look behind the rhetoric you find that many of the federal agencies neither have the authority or funding to do the work."

Jonathan Brinckman
Columbia Salmon Recovery Efforts Stall
The Oregonian, March (?), 2002

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