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Commentaries and editorials

New Plan Sets Up
Court Fight Over Salmon

by Rocky Barker
Idaho Statesman, November 1, 2007

Feds still say fish runs can be restored without breaching dams

Federal fisheries officials say operations of the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the region's endangered salmon and steelhead.

But critics aren't convinced. Only four Snake River sockeye salmon returned this year to Redfish Lake - and officials acknowledge the run may not be recoverable.

Now, once again, a federal judge will decide if dam managers are doing enough to save the fish, which are the major cultural icon of the Pacific Northwest. He threw out their last proposal because it didn't do enough to help fish, and the groups that opposed that plan are already lining up against this one.

The National Marine Fisheries Service issued two biological opinions Wednesday that show how the federal dams are meeting the Endangered Species Act.

The agency said that 12 threatened or endangered salmon and steelhead runs will be launched on the road to recovery by $1.5 billion worth of dam improvements and other actions that include habitat improvements, hatchery operation changes and predator control measures.

As expected, the agency will not call for breaching four dams on the Lower Snake River in Washington - but breaching is what many scientists say is the only way to recover the diminished runs.

"There is no single cause for salmon population declines, and there will be no single solution," said Bob Lohn, regional administrator for the Fisheries Service in Seattle. "The only course of action is a comprehensive plan coordinated with state, local and tribal partners."

Salmon represent what's left of the wild character of the region. The fish provides the basis for sport- and commercial-fishing industries that generate more than $3 billion dollars annually.

The Fisheries Service, also known as NOAA Fisheries, released the two draft documents - one for the 10 federal irrigation dams in the Upper Snake in Idaho and another for 14 dams on the Columbia and its tributaries, including the Lower Snake River in Washington, and rivers in Oregon and Montana.

These dams provide nearly half of the electricity that powers Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. Snake and Columbia river water irrigates crops, and barges carry them to the Pacific from as far inland as Lewiston.

The federal agencies that operate the dams and the hydroelectric power system in the Northwest - including U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration - had submitted their plans to the Fisheries Service earlier this year for review. The fisheries agency added several other measures it will require.

This is the sixth biological opinion issued on the Columbia and Snake dams since 1992. It comes after U.S. District Judge James Redden threw out the last plan issued by the Bush administration as inadequate and illegal. But these documents are only drafts, and Redden will decide the timetable for releasing a final document.

The environmental groups, tribes, industry and fishing groups that prompted Redden's decision with a lawsuit are certain to challenge it again in court.

"This plan is yet another disappointment - it ignores sound science and disregards the economic value of salmon and steelhead to Idaho's rural communities," said Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United. "A plan rooted in science would not ignore the devastating impacts of the four lower Snake River dams as this plan does."

This time the agencies analyzed dams on the Columbia and Lower Snake and dams on the Upper Snake in Idaho together. The Upper Snake dams include those on the Payette and Boise rivers, including Lucky Peak. The Upper Snake biological opinion was tied to the 2005 Nez Perce Water Rights Agreement, negotiated between federal agencies, the state, the Nez Perce Tribe and irrigation districts and companies.

The opinion relies on assurances from the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the dams, that it will lease up to 487,000 acre-feet of water from Idaho farmers and other water users to flush down the Snake River to improve spring migration flows. It also includes money for other actions to improve salmon and steelhead migration on the Salmon River and its tributaries.

The determination that the proposed actions won't threaten the existence of the salmon keeps the Nez Perce water deal alive for now. The parties had the right to pull out if the Fisheries Service had issued a "jeopardy opinion" - a proposal that would have said the dams jeopardize the fish.

The Fisheries Service also analyzed the dams and the recovery efforts on each of the 12 threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead runs - including Snake River sockeye - and concluded that all the actions planned would put all the species on the road to recovery. Only seven of the 12 listed salmon and steelhead are directly affected by the dams.

Four of those, the Snake River fish, face the most impacts because they swim through eight dams, including the four Lower Snake dams. Critics and most fisheries scientists say removing the four dams is the best and perhaps only way to restore those four stocks, which are the only Idaho runs.

The sockeye are the most problematic, and the ruling that their future is not jeopardized by the plan the most controversial.

Lohn of the Fisheries Service acknowledged that the sockeye, which spawn only in Redfish Lake near Stanley, are "functionally extinct," and survive today only through a captive breeding program managed by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Federal agencies plan to dramatically expand the program to bring more fish back to Redfish, which Lohn said would be "a major step on the road to recovery," for the sockeye.

But he also expressed concerns that so few sockeye have returned and are a part of the brood stock that they may not be genetically diverse enough to survive.

"We still have major questions about whether we can recover those fish," he said.

Related Pages:
The opinions and supporting documents are available here.
Idaho's Sockeye: FCRPS Biological Opinion NOAA Fisheries' Executive Summary, 10/31/7

Rocky Barker
New Plan Sets Up Court Fight Over Salmon
Idaho Statesman, November 1, 2007

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