Administration Rules that
by Greg Stahl, Express Staff Writer
Decision flabbergasts salmon advocacy groups
"They're counting their salmon before they're hatched. They're assuming things will continue to get better. It's not really doing anything to save salmon. It's a way to protect the dams and trying to find legal ways to defend it by saying the dams are part of the baseline or the landscape."—Scott Levy, www.bluefish.org
The Bush administration declared in a decision announced Tuesday, Aug. 31, that federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers do not “jeopardize” the continued survival and recovery of endangered salmon and steelhead.
What the Bush administration’s decision means is that partial removal of four dams on the lower Snake River no longer needs to be considered for restoring threatened and endangered salmon runs, which have been on a long and gradual decline since the dams were built in the middle of the last century.
The decision is based on continuing improvements to the Columbia Basin hydroelectric power system, the Bush administration’s top Northwest salmon official said Tuesday.
The numbers of chinook salmon and steelhead returning to the mountains of Idaho the last several years have improved, but they are only a fraction of their historic vigor. Sockeye salmon, which spawn in the glacial lakes of the Sawtooth Valley, are barely surviving with help from a hatchery-based life-support system.
Only a handful of sockeye salmon have returned to the Sawtooth Valley in Central Idaho through the last decade. Last year, only two sockeye-both hatchery-raised-returned to Redfish Creek, a tributary of the Salmon River.
Improving numbers of chinook salmon and steelhead are due to improved ocean conditions and improvements made to the hydrosystem the last four years. Those elements combined with plans to add experimental devices called removable spillway weirs over the next 10 years make dam removal a superfluous option, said Bob Lohn, the Northwest regional manager of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries.
“I think some of the disparity that has been present in the region, certainly among salmon biologists in that time, has been overcome by the fact that we now see it is possible to have substantial rebounds of fish with the hydrosystem in place,” Lohn said. “The facts changed in the intervening time.”
A total of 14 populations of salmon and steelhead are listed as threatened or endangered in the Columbia and Snake River basins in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.
The decision flabbergasted fish advocacy groups.
Idaho Rivers United Executive Director Bill Sedivy called the no jeopardy opinion “absurd” and “preposterous.”
“It’s like saying cigarettes don’t cause cancer,” he said. “It’s a giant leap backward for salmon recovery. It’s a tremendous backslide. The government’s own science for more than a decade has said that the dams are the problem. It’s politically motivated. It contradicts a decade of government science. It’s wrong.”
Sedivy said he believes Northwest residents, sport anglers, commercial anglers and business leaders in small Idaho communities like Riggins, Kooskia, Salmon and Stanley will see through the “slight of hand” proposals offered in the new plan.
“How can the Bush administration tell us that Redfish Lake sockeye are not in jeopardy?” he asked.
Under the Endangered Species Act, the operation of the eight major federal hydroelectric dams in the region cannot jeopardize the survival of those fish, and it is up to NOAA Fisheries to issue a biological opinion saying how dams must be operated to assure the fish survive.
In May 2003, U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland ruled that the biological opinion issued in 2000 was illegal because the federal government could not guarantee that habitat enhancements and upgrades to hatchery and dam operations would be done. The 2000 plan included a provision that if improvements did not occur, the government had to consider removing the four dams on the lower Snake River.
Lohn, joined in a Tuesday conference call by top executives of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dams, and the Bonneville Power Administration, which sells the power generated, offered a preview of the biological opinion that will be offered to Redden by Sept. 10.
NOAA Fisheries missed the Tuesday deadline to get the full document to the court.
The biological opinion sets a new course for salmon recovery in the Columbia Basin, jettisoning a movement toward restoring the Columbia and Snake rivers to a more natural condition, and embracing the eight major dams in the environmental baseline for the region.
“The idea that the whole hydrosystem in the Columbia River is all of a sudden now determined to not jeopardize fish is quite a change in direction for the federal government,'”said Jim Myron, natural resources advisor to Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski. Kulongoski’s predecessor, Gov. John Kitzhaber, called for the removal of the four dams on the lower Snake River.
Judge Redden, “has established some pretty high bars before,” Myron added. “Whether this gets over Redden's bar is questionable.”
John Kober of the World Wildlife Fund, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit that resulted in this new biological opinion, said it appeared to be created to fulfill President George W. Bush's campaign promise to leave the four lower Snake River dams in place, not to restore salmon.
The Pacific Northwest Waterway Users Association, a coalition of barge operators, farmers, utilities and others, was pleased with the new approach, particularly the recognition that the dams are part of the landscape, said executive director Glenn Vanselow.
Lohn said the big new thing about this biological opinion was the addition of removable spillway weirs, which should be installed on all eight major dams within the next 10 years. One has been in experimental operation on Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River in Eastern Washington, with promising results.
The device gathers fish and eases them over the dam, rather than requiring them to dive deep to slip through release channels in the dam. As a result, the fish emerge with less harm. It takes less water than current methods, eliminating delays for fish and leaving more water to go through turbines for power generation.
“The data we are seeing suggests there can be a slight improvement in direct survival,” said Lohn. “We could get noticeable improvement.”
Brig. Gen. William Grisoli, commander of the Northwest division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said he had no cost estimate, but the weirs would have to be custom-designed for each dam. Kober said the removable spillway weirs are very expensive-as much as $40 million apiece-and offer little demonstration of increased salmon survival.
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