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With release of new salmon biop, Columbia Basin Stakeholders still divided over federal approach

Posted on Friday, January 24, 2014 (PST)  Columbia Basin Bulletin

Longstanding disagreements remain, as Columbia River basin stakeholders – power users, salmon protectors, irrigators, navigators and others – consider the latest plan for assuring federal hydro projects on the Columbia and Snake rivers avoid jeopardizing protected salmon and steelhead populations.


NOAA Fisheries on Jan. 17 released its 2014 Supplemental Federal Columbia River Power System biological opinion for salmon and steelhead. (CBB, Jan. 17, 2014, “NOAA Fisheries Issues New Salmon/Steelhead Biological Opinion For Columbia/Snake River Power System”http://www.cbbulletin.com/429522.aspx)


The document is an answer to a 2011 remand order from U.S. District Court Judge James A. Redden that declared the BiOp completed in 2008 and revised in 2010 illegal. (CBB, Aug. 5, 2011, “Redden Orders New Salmon BiOp By 2014; Says Post-2013 Mitigation, Benefits Unidentified”http://www.cbbulletin.com/411336.aspx)


Redden required the agency and its federal partners to rethink their strategy for assuring that the FCRPS avoids jeopardizing the existence of 13 Columbia and Snake river salmon and steelhead stocks that are protected under the Endangered Species Act.


The judge asked that the new BiOp require more specific identification of habitat actions planned for the 2014-2018 period of the opinion and describe how those actions would benefit fish.


NOAA Fisheries adopted its 2014 Supplemental FCRPS biological opinion on Jan. 17, saying the revised plan answered judge’s questions, and guaranteed the listed species continued existence.


Responses to the new plan have been across the board, with fish conservation parties continuing, as they have since the first ESA BiOps were issued in the early 1990s, to call federal fish protection efforts inadequate while others dependent on river operations insist the planned fish protections are on track.


The plaintiffs in the long-running lawsuit – the state of Oregon and a coalition of fishing and conservation groups led by the National Wildlife Federation, are mulling their options.


“I just started talking to our people this morning,” Earthjustice attorney Steve Mashuda said. Earthjustice represents the coalition. Mashuda said at midweek that first steps were being taken to assess the 600-page BiOp and related documents, evaluate potential legal next steps, and confer with clients involved in the NWF coalition.


Oregon officials did not respond to requests for comments.


Comments issued by Save Our Wild Salmon, whose membership makes up much of the plaintiff coalition, said that the new BiOp “fails to address the issues that triggered federal-court rejection of three previous plans.


“The latest plan, called a biological opinion, risks continued legal battles just as momentum is building in the Northwest for a broadly supported solutions process.,” the SOS statement says.


“Unfortunately, this latest blueprint is virtually indistinguishable from the plan rejected by the district court in 2011," said Save Our Wild Salmon executive director Joseph Bogaard. “Rather than looking for ways to do more to safeguard imperiled salmon and bring people together, the federal agencies have spent the last two years coming up with new reasons for the same tired conclusions – choosing conflict over collaboration.”


Fishing groups expressed disappointment with the new plan, and what they say is the missed opportunity to change course for the salmon and people of the Columbia Basin.


“Today’s plan fails to help salmon or boost salmon jobs, and fails to lay the foundation for a broadly-supported stakeholder process that could work toward shared solutions,” said Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “And in some respects, such as cutting back spill, this version is actually a step backwards from what's already been thrown out of court as ‘illegal, arbitrary and capricious.’”


The coalition says that the new plan cuts back spill -- water released over the dams to aid migration of young salmon headed toward the Pacific Ocean – to levels lower than those in place under court order since 2006.


The coalition says that federal, state, and tribal scientists have concluded spill is boosting salmon survival and adult returns.


“A 17-year study demonstrates that spill is our most effective immediate measure to increase salmon survival across their life-cycle,” said Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association executive director Liz Hamilton. “The court-ordered spill in place since 2006 has resulted in more adult fish returning to the Columbia. That’s helped salmon businesses and the jobs they support.


“Meanwhile, NOAA and Bonneville Power Administration seem to be stuck in the 1990s when it comes to spill science. We can understand dam managers’ reluctance to share the river water with salmon, but that doesn’t excuse their effort to turn back the clock and ignore 17 years of data from the fish,” Hamilton said. BPA markets power generated at FCRPS dams in the Columbia and Snake river hydro system. Water spilled for fish passage is unavailable for power generation.


The coalition says that the plan also fails to identify any new or additional measures to address the intensifying impacts of climate change.


“Climate change isn’t a future threat on the distant horizon – it’s already here and harming our imperiled salmon,” said Bogaard of Save Our Wild Salmon. “Yet NOAA – an agency that certainly knows better – didn’t include a single additional new action to help salmon better survive the warming waters and altered river flows that climate change is bringing to the Columbia Basin. That’s more than a missed opportunity – it’s negligence.”


River users, such as power interests, irrigators and navigators, say the fish protection plan is paying dividends.


“The dramatic increase in returns for several endangered fish species over the last ten years demonstrates the success of regional investments in fish passage, habitat, and other river improvements,” according to the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association.


“They contribute to ‘All-H’ recovery steps already completed, under way and planned. Northwest ports and navigation interests have always strongly supported robust salmon recovery efforts that preserve the multiple uses of the river system,” the PNWA statement says. “The updated FCRPS BiOp released today meets the requirements of the 2011 court remand, while continuing to deliver the authorized purposes of the dams. The supplemental BiOp answers Judge Redden's specifics in his order concluding his August 2011 Opinion.”


The new BiOp “is the product of the best available science, as well as significant collaboration between the federal agencies, four states and sovereign Northwest tribes. Highlights include the conclusion that the agencies' salmon recovery activities will be more beneficial than anticipated for 22 of the populations. The higher survival estimates for these populations provide additional assurance that the required survival benefits will be achieved.”


PNWA manages the Inland Ports and Navigation Group, a subset of PNWA members. IPNG is an intervenor in the BiOp lawsuit, supporting the work of the federal agencies.


U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., says that “with last year’s record-breaking salmon runs, it’s safe to say that salmon and hydropower dams can and do co-exist.”


The release of the new BiOp “continues much of the significant, ongoing work that’s been done over the years to ensure favorable conditions for the salmon’s recovery,” Hastings said. “I’m encouraged to see the collaborative process is continuing with the support of the states, tribes, and regional authorities.


“It’s time to finally put to a close the endless lawsuits and courtroom battles prolonged by the unreasonable demands of a couple outlier voices, and allow for the long-term certainty of continued operation of clean, renewable hydropower dams for millions of Northwest citizens,” Hastings said.


The two-year remand has allowed NOAA Fisheries to strengthen its case, according to a statement released by Northwest RiverPartners.


“NOAA Fisheries has reaffirmed that measures in the federal salmon plan are working to protect and restore salmon populations in the Columbia Basin. The plan… is without a doubt the most comprehensive and expensive plan to protect an endangered species in the nation, and likely the world.


“NOAA’s conclusion is clear: The plan is benefitting listed salmon now and will continue to protect them well into the future. Northwest RiverPartners says that BiOp highlights include:


-- $1.6 billion invested in new technologies at all eight federal dams and operational changes is helping young salmon survive at very high rates and helping adults return to their spawning grounds


-- An unprecedented and massive program that has restored more than 10,000 acres of habitat in the Columbia Basin is already showing results


“More than one million fall chinook salmon returned to spawn last year, the highest numbers since Bonneville Dam opened in 1938,” said Terry Flores, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners. “And the plan has worked to bring sockeye back from the brink of extinction.”


Despite the salmon plan’s demonstrated progress, environmental and commercial fishing groups are expected to try to block the plan in court, as they have done for nearly two decades, the RiverPartners statement says.


“Lawsuits are these groups’ bread and butter, and they will continue to sue – no matter what the facts say,” Flores said. “They are bent on removing the federal dams, no matter how well the salmon are doing, so it’s simply not in their interest to acknowledge the tremendous progress being made.”


She said Oregon and the conservation groups continue to press for radical changes in dam operations, including a ten-year “experiment” to dramatically increase spill through dams that would violate state and federal water quality standards established to protect salmon and other aquatic organisms and would significantly increase energy costs for Northwest families and businesses.


“It also would remove several hundred megawatts of clean renewable hydropower that fuels our economy and protects our environment,” Flores said. “This radical spill proposal makes no sense – until you understand that their ultimate goal is to reduce the cost-effectiveness of the federal hydro system in order to make the case for dam removal.”


Redden has withdrawn from the legal proceedings and U.S. District Judge Michael Simon will now preside over any future litigation.


Northwest RiverPartners is an alliance of utilities, ports, farmers, and businesses joined together in promoting clean renewable hydropower and salmon restoration policies based in sound science. nwrp.org.




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