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November 02, 2007 (Revision of Oct. 31 story)
Federal officials this week said that a better scientific understanding of the fish and their needs, and an infusion of resources to meet those needs over the next 10 years, will lift 13 threatened or endangered Columbia River Basin salmon and steelhead stocks toward recovery.

Two draft NOAA Fisheries Service biological opinions released Wednesday describe specific actions to be taken hydro system operations, hatchery and harvest reforms and/or habitat improvements -- for each of the 78 populations that make up those listed stocks.

Implementation of the entire package represents an increase in federal spending on Columbia Basin salmon recovery over the next 10 years of at least $1 billion, according to federal officials.

Analysis of those separate sets of actions indicates they will push population curves upward, though at different rates because the status of some is more dire. The BiOps were produced to judge whether federal Columbia/Snake River hydropower and irrigation projects jeopardize the 13 stocks. NOAA's draft says the plans not only avoid jeopardy but raise hope for recovery.

"Our focus has been on what you need" to do to avoid jeopardy and spur recovery, Bonneville Power Administration CEO Steve Wright said in answer to a question about the potential costs of the BiOps' implementation.

As marketer of the power generated in the federal system, BPA has an obligation to pay fish mitigation costs, which include changed hydro operations such as spill for fish passage which represents foregone generating opportunity. BPA and the dam operators -- the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation -- built the action plans that were judged in the BiOps, including in their biological assessment long lists of actions intended to improve salmon and steelhead survival.

The costs estimates were based on measures described in the "action" agencies plans, which were released in late August

The cost estimates are "fairly ballparky, but also conservative, I would say," according to BPA's Sarah McNary.

A big chunk of that increase will fund capital improvements at the dams and research to improve fish survival up and down the system. Full implementation would lift spending to $1.6 billion over the period, as opposed to about $1.1 billion over the past 10 years, according to the Corps' Rock Peters. That program is funded through congressional appropriations but the expenditures are reimbursed to the U.S. Treasury by BPA.

"The other big increase is the habitat program. The level of effort there will double" to about $45 million in BPA funding annually for work in tributaries and the estuary, McNary said. The Corps and Bureau will fund additional habitat work.

McNary said the ESA-focused habitat funding increase would be in addition to that spent by BPA through the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's fish and wildlife program.

"Hundreds of individual habitat actions" are outlined in the NOAA documents, according to the agency's regional administrator, Bob Lohn.

Almost $35 million will be spent over the BiOp period to fund new hatchery facilities and another $5 million per year to fund new, hatchery facility-related expenses, according to the August estimates. Those measures include construction of a Nez Perce Tribe supplementation facility -- the Northeast Oregon Hatchery -- and an expansion of the production capability for Redfish Lake sockeye. Expenditures also target the implementation of hatchery reforms at existing hatcheries, McNary said.

Accompanying the newly released draft BiOps is a "Supplemental Comprehensive Analysis" that charts individual fish populations' abundance trends and projects improvements resulting from proposed hydro system operational and configuration changes, hatchery reform, habitat improvements and other actions.

The proposed actions over the next 10 years "will not only prevent harm to threatened and endangered salmon, but will ultimately move the species towards recovery," according to a NOAA Fisheries press release announcing the release of draft biological opinions for the Federal Columbia River Power System (727 pages with appendices) and for multipurpose Bureau of Reclamation projects on the Upper Snake (564 pages).

The BiOps and associated documents can be found at http://www.nwr.noaa.gov/Salmon-Hydropower/Columbia-Snake-Basin/Draft-BOs.cfm.

The draft documents call for "hundreds of millions of dollars of research" to affirm the projected gains in salmon and steelhead abundance, according to the press release.

The BiOps include analysis far more detailed and tailored to individual fish populations than has been used before.

"Through this process, our understanding of the salmon lifecycle has increased dramatically," Lohn said. "This rigorous scientific review provides us with a great degree of certainty that these actions will lead to salmon recovery."

The BiOps, replacing documents declared illegal in 2005 and 2006, "spell out an aggressive and comprehensive series" of actions aimed at mitigating for negative impacts on fish stemming from the Columbia/Snake hydro system and Upper Snake River projects, used primarily to provide irrigation.

The BiOps were built following a collaboration with Northwest tribes and states aimed at narrowing areas of scientific agreement on the course of action for reviving diminished Snake and Columbia salmon and steelhead stocks.

"There is no single cause for salmon population declines and there will be no single solution," Lohn said. "The only course of action is a comprehensive plan coordinated with state, local and tribal partners. These BiOps lay the foundation for restoration."

The collaboration group worked exhaustively to resolve issues, holding more than 300 technical and policy meetings over the course of nearly two years, according to the press release.

"This process taught us that the commitment and resolution for salmon recovery have not diminished," added Lohn.

The new BiOps "raise the bar for determining jeopardy" in answer to a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that NOAA must judge whether the listed stocks have an "adequate potential for recovery," Lohn said.

"By the end of the decade we want to point at all of the ESUs and say they are significantly improved," according to Lohn. Some, such as Snake River sockeye and Upper Columbia steelhead, represent stiffer challenges, he said.

The analysis also takes into account ocean conditions and climate change. For example, survival rates are judged on the assumption ocean conditions will follow the same pattern over the next 22 years as they did the past 22 years, four years of ocean conditions that are favorable and 18 that are unfavorable for salmon survival. That assumption ignores the fact that the past 50 years show an even split.

"In other words, the analysis of benefits expected under the proposed action is based on a deliberately conservative approach," the executive summary says. "While neither the federal action agencies nor NOAA Fisheries are in a position to predict what future weather and ocean conditions will occur over the next ten years, if conditions are more consistent with the historical average, then the results obtained from the proposed action are likely to be considerably better than those estimated in this analysis."

"We think it's important that we don't assume the best" ocean conditions in calculating overall lifecycle survival improvement needs, Lohn said.

The new strategy's mix of action agency proposals and NOAA additions includes numerous changes, from the 2004 BiOp. They includes changes to hatchery operations, such as a requirement that the Winthrop National Fish Hatchery in central Washington adjust its broodstock management to produce fish more closely resembling historic patterns of Upper Columbia steelhead.

There is more prescribed spill in some cases, and less in others. Daytime spill at Bonneville Dam, as an example, will jump to 85,000 cubic feet per second as compared to the current 75 kcfs formula to test for juvenile survival improvements, according to the Corps' Witt Anderson.

The agencies also plan to curtail spill in August at four lower Snake dams after the number of migrants has dwindled. And if numbers pick up, the plan calls for a resumption of spill. Court orders have required spill at the dams through August during the past three summers.

Transportation regimes may be changed in spring, to reflect the most recent data regarding the survival of fish barged downstream as compared to being allowed to proceed in-stream.

The proposed action and analysis submitted by the Corps, Bureau and BPA in August reached the conclusion that operation of the FCRPS projects, without further mitigation, would jeopardize listed species. That proposal included additional measures designed to benefit listed species and tilt those abundance trends away from jeopardy and toward recovery.

"NOAA Fisheries has included in its analysis the additional mitigation proposed by the Federal Action Agencies, as well as other mitigation measures that NOAA Fisheries believes are needed to avoid jeopardizing the listed species," according to an executive summary of the draft documents.

"Collectively, these additional actions are called, in the language of the ESA, a "reasonable and prudent alternative.' The reasonable and prudent alternative for the FCRPS operations contains 73 detailed sets of additional mitigation actions that are required to avoid jeopardy and adverse modification of critical habitat," the 83-page summary says.

The cost estimates produced in August have yet to be refined to include the modifications and additions encased in the draft FCRPS BiOp's "reasonable and prudent alternative," McNary said.

The BiOps are based on a much broader, more comprehensive and more rigorous method of analyzing salmon-population changes than has ever been attempted before, according to the NOAA.

NOAA Fisheries analyzed a wide variety of measurements and factors for each of the individual salmon populations that make up the 13 listed "evolutionarily significant units. Measurements included a species' current abundance trends, its likelihood to rebound from low population levels, and the geographical distribution of the population.

U.S. District Court Judge James A. Redden's May 2005 order listed the flaws of the 2004 FCRPS Biological Opinion, and ordered NOAA Fisheries to correct:

-- its improper segregation of the elements of the proposed action NOAA Fisheries deems to be nondiscretionary;

-- its improper comparison, rather than aggregation, of the effects of the proposed action on the listed salmon and steelhead;

-- its flawed determinations as to whether the proposed action destroys or adversely modifies critical habitat;

-- its failure to consider the effects of the proposed action on both recovery and survival of the listed species in determining whether the proposed action is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of listed salmon and steelhead; and

-- its past reliance on mitigation measures that are not reasonably certain to occur and/or have not undergone Section 7 consultation.

A year later, the judge ruled that a 2005 BiOp for the Upper Snake BiOp was based on the same analytical flaws.

NOAA Fisheries says it has addressed these flaws directly in its draft 2007 Biological Opinion for the FCRPS. In particular:

"-- NOAA Fisheries' analysis aggregates the effects of the FCRPS proposed actions as modified by NOAA Fisheries' reasonable and prudent alternative, the Upper Snake basin proposed actions, the transportation permit (all together referred to as 'Prospective Actions', with the continuing effects in the environmental baseline and anticipated future state and private actions (termed Cumulative Effects) on the listed salmon and steelhead, as reported in Chapter 8 of the Supplemental Comprehensive Analysis for each species.

"-- NOAA Fisheries revised its analytical treatment and effects of the proposed action on critical habitat, as reported in Chapter 8 of the Supplemental Comprehensive Analysis for each species.

"-- NOAA Fisheries addressed both the prospects for recovery and survival in evaluating the effects of the proposed action, reported as the Recovery Prong and the Survival Prong for each species in Chapter 8 of the Supplemental Comprehensive Analysis.

"-- NOAA Fisheries' determination relies on measures included in the Reasonable and Prudent Alternative, which is the subject of the Section 7 consultation. Actions outside of this Reasonable and Prudent Alternative, Federal, state, and tribal measures that are already taking place or are reasonably certain to occur, are considered as part of the environmental baseline or, on a qualitative basis, as part of a cumulative effects analysis."

The Upper Snake draft BiOp is "analytically based on the same set of facts" as the FCRPS, Lohn said, taking into account cumulative effects and including the FCRPS' effects in its environmental baseline.

Lohn said that the BiOps' production represented an unusual situation. Normally NOAA proceeds from draft to final documents in consultation with the other federal agencies but without a public comment period. In this case, states and tribes and others involved in the lawsuit will be allowed to comment, though not the public at large.

He said Judge Redden would likely dictate the length of the comment period, and when a final BiOp must be completed.

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