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NMFS, Caucus Release Salmon Recovery Strategy

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - December 22, 2000

Federal agencies said Thursday that they have put themselves on notice: If their latest Columbia Basin salmon recovery plan doesn't play out as envisioned, the National Marine Fisheries Service could play trump cards as soon as 2003 that might include seeking authorization to breach four Lower Snake River dams.

The final NMFS' Federal Columbia River Power system biological opinion released Thursday says that its supporting science concludes that Endangered Species Act listed salmon and steelhead can be recovered without dam breaching. The focus, instead, will be on improving tributary and estuary habitat and a "radical overhaul of the hatchery system" to minimize harm to listed fish.

Tributary spawning streams where many salmon spend their first year of life and the freshwater-saltwater interface are considered by NMFS to be portions of salmon's life cycle where the opportunities to reduce mortality are the greatest.

"Breaching those dams remains an option if the recovery efforts don't meet strict performance standards included in the strategy," said Donna Darm, acting NMFS regional administrator. "This approach challenges hydropower system operators, hatchery and fishery managers, users of habitat and virtually everyone who influences the life cycle of the fish to meet rigorous survival goals over a defined period."

An accompanying document developed by the nine-agency federal caucus, a "Basin-Wide Salmon Recovery Strategy" ties together harvest, hatchery, habitat and hydrosystem actions in a broad strategy aimed at improving fish survival and preventing extinction of 12 listed Columbia Basin anadromous fish species. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife biological opinion addresses the need of listed resident fish such as bull trout and Kootenai River white sturgeon.

Implementing the plan will be costly for the region's ratepayers. Under a funding agreement reached in 1996, The Bonneville Power Administration committed to spending up to $252 million annually for its direct fish and wildlife program, reimbursables and fixed costs on capital investments at the federal dams. It also agreed to absorb the financial impacts associated with operating the hydro system to enhance fish passage and survival.

BPA estimates that implementation of the 2000 BiOp will require an additional $100 million per year for the direct program, reimbursables and capital expenses.

The federal caucus estimates that federal expenditures for salmon recovery, across all agencies, now are from $300 million to $400 million annually, according to Carolyn Whitney, head of communications for the caucus. That includes BPA ratepayer funds and funds spent by the agencies that are appropriated by Congress. That total cost could rise by as much a $200 million for implementing the BiOp and recovery strategy, depending on congressional appropriations and how much in agency budgets can be redirected from other uses.

BPA estimates that implementing the new BiOp will cost 60 average megawatts of generation because of increased spill requirements for fish passage and other operational measures. The monetary cost will depend on what has become a wildly fluctuating and high energy market. The megawatt loss is relatively small when added to the cost of implementing the 1995 BiOp, 900 aMW or 10 percent of the capability of the system, according to Steve Wright, BPA acting administrator.

"Successful implementation of this strategy will require a significant increase in our commitment of resources to the restoration of salmon, while making maximum use of existing funds and authorities," George Frampton, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said in a Thursday press release.

"Federal agencies will work with the office of Management and Budget, Congress, the states, tribes, the Northwest Power Planning Council, and other interested partied to prioritize and accelerate funding and implementation of the measures identified in the biological opinions and the Basin-wide Strategy," Frampton said.

During a Thursday press conference Darm was asked what kind of support for the plan she expect to get from Congress and the Bush Administration in the months ahead. Bush has repeatedly said he does not consider breaching an option.

"Our view is that this is the most responsible and sensible approach to recovering Columbia Basin fish," Darm said. "I haven't heard from the Bush Administration or from Congress, but I haven't heard anyone say that they aren't interested in recovering fish. So I would anticipate that we would get full support both from the new administration and from Congress to carry out this plan."

The first three years of the plan emphasize the need to implement actions described in the BiOp and "All H" strategy and developing the research, data, "performance standards" and fish recovery goals necessary to measure success. At the forefront are: Actions to restore estuary habitats; initiatives expected to bring immediate benefits in selected "priority" subbasins; caps on harvest at current levels; and continued work on passage improvements at the dams.

The BiOp, which replaces one in force since 1995, sets minimum water flows in the Snake and Columbia rivers during crucial parts of the year, calls for more spill of water over eight hydroelectric dams and upgrades fish-passage facilities at those dams for both downstream juveniles and returning adults.

The opinion has built-in performance reviews or "check-ins" at three, five and eight years to take advantage of what's learned and to require more aggressive actions in all categories if goals are not being reached.

The NMFS will issue a report at each check-in regarding habitat restoration, hydrosystem improvement, and harvest and hatchery management activity. The first will assess whether the federal agencies, such as the Bonneville Power Administration and the dam operators, the Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation, have taken the steps believed necessary to achieve survival improvement targets.

A failure report would identify corrective actions, including some not currently authorized, to avoid jeopardizing the listed species and adversely modifying their critical habitats.

An example used by the federal caucus is that "failure to implement sufficient estuary or tributary habitat improvements for Snake River salmon and steehead could require that the agencies seek authorizations to breach Snake River dams to ensure that all options are available in 2005."

Brig. Gen. Carl Strock of the Corps agreed Thursday that a lack of congressional support could result in a failure to meet hydro performance standards and, as a result, force a call for dam breaching. The Corps' division engineer said there are two aspects to consider regarding the chances of achieving success with the plan

"One is the biological side and whether this is sufficient. The other piece has to do with our level of confidence of getting the political will to commit the funds to make these things happen. If we do not get the funding to implement this then dam breaching may in fact turn out to be the only thing we can do. Our ability to implement these things is based on levels of appropriations and authorizations we get at the Corps of Engineers," said Strock.

One change from the July draft BiOp and recovery plan to the final is that studies needed to implement a breaching option will not be started unless the prescribed measures receive a failure report at the scheduled check-ins. The draft called for first-year studies.

"At the three- and five-year check-in points if we're not making the performance standards there is a mechanism here that requests the Corps of Engineers begin the preliminary engineering and design studies that are necessary to move us on to dam breaching," said Brig. Gen. Carl Strock of the Corps. It would then take 5-7 years to implement such an action if authorization was received, he said.

Darm insisted that pressure from breaching foes did not sway NMFS' decision to pursue non-breaching remedies.

"No, public sentiment against dam breaching didn't play a role in making this decision under the Endangered Species Act. We based this decision on the best scientific information available. When we looked at what happens to these fish across their life cycle we determined that, at least given currently available information for many of these stocks in the Snake River, dam breaching by itself would not achieve recovery," Darm said.

The new BiOp differs from previous documents in that it sets goals to improve salmon survival in locations away from the dams -- "off-site" -- to increase the number of fish moving past dams on the main stem of the river, according to NMFS.

The strategy says that BPA intends to rely on the Council's fish and wildlife program, as its primary implementation tool for the 2000 FCRPS Biological Opinion off-site mitigation requirements.

The federal caucus Basin-Wide Salmon Recovery Strategy "integrates all the requirements of the biological opinions and adds measures outside the hydropower arena to limit salmon catches, restore salmon habitat and change how hatcheries are managed." It relies heavily on the participation of tribes, as well as state and local governments.

The entire package was released in draft form last July for review by Northwest Indian tribes and by the states of Washington, Idaho Oregon and Montana.

The NMFS BiOp judged that proposed hydrosystem operations posed jeopardy to the survival of eight of the 12 Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead "evolutionarily significant units" listed under the Endangered Species Act. The document outlines a series of "reasonable and prudent alternatives" to proposed hydrosystem operations that the agency believes necessary to avoid jeopardizing those stocks.

The final BiOp no longer includes consultation with the Bureau of Reclamation on 10 upper Snake River irrigation projects, which will be covered in a separate biological opinion.

Below is a summary of the federal government's recovery strategy:

Federal actions will be undertaken by the Federal Caucus, the nine agencies with salmon responsibility in the Northwest. They are the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Environmental Protection Agency, Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service and National Marine Fisheries Service.

For further information please see the Federal Caucus Web site at

Barry Espenson
NMFS, Caucus Release Salmon Recovery Strategy
Columbia Basin Bulletin, December 22, 2000

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