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[1] New BiOp Based On Best Science And Better Collaboration, Say Feds

Touting a new sense of collaboration with Northwest states and Indian tribes, NOAA Fisheries released May 5 its final version of a 10-year plan to save both salmon and federal dams in the Columbia Basin.

At the same time, the agency released a 30-year plan to guide operations of Upper Snake River irrigation dams and another 10-year plan that will regulate both tribal and non-tribal fish harvest in the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

The overarching conclusions from Monday's 4,000-plus page document dump said that most ESA-listed stocks are growing and can recover if the region follows the new hydro BiOp's 73 separate prescriptions for operating mainstem dams, barging fish, improving habitat and reprogramming hatcheries--and still catch more fish when lots show up.

The feds found that that proposed operations of the FCRPS and the Bureau of Reclamation's upper Snake storage dams would not jeopardize listed salmon and steelhead stocks in the Columbia Basin.

Nor would a future harvest regime that calls for more than a 50-percent harvest bump for tribal and non-tribal fishers when ESA-listed wild Snake fall chinook numbers reach 8,000 (nearly three times current numbers). But if the fall run crashes, the harvest BiOp would cut future harvest from current 31-percent levels down to about 21 percent.

Their conclusions about hydro operations have already been questioned by some environmental and fishing groups who are still stumping for removal of lower Snake dams. The governor of Oregon has said his state may go to court for more fish spill and a reservoir drawdown that federal agencies say does not outweigh overall detriments.

Since environmentalists have won two previous challenges to federal salmon plans since 2000, federal agencies have done their best to please the federal judge in charge of the current remand process. The latest plan goes back to the 2000 BiOp with its all-inclusive All-H approach, it uses an updated analysis of short-term extinction risk, and estimates dam passage benefits with a passage model that has been reviewed positively by an independent science panel.

Another important feature is the ironclad promise that actions to improve habitat are "reasonably certain to occur," one of the principal reasons why Oregon District Court judge James Redden threw the plan out in May 2003. BPA has said it will fund most of the habitat improvements in formal agreements with several Columbia Basin tribes. In return, the tribes have agreed to support the BiOps.

And the feds say the final product has been further strengthened after comments on the draft BiOp were received last fall. It now includes sections that deal with climate change and potential effects on Puget Sound killer whales.

But NOAA Fisheries regional administrator Bob Lohn said the one key difference between these BiOps and previous ones isn't found in them at all. "It's the changed relationship that has occurred in this region and I think it will make a profound difference in salmon recovery over this next decade," he said at a May 5 press conference.

Lohn is referring to the increased support for the new hydro BiOp--three of the four Northwest states, and five of the seven tribes involved in previous BiOp litigation now support it--the culmination of an extensive, two-year collaboration among sovereigns (including more than 300 meetings) ordered by judge Redden.

Lohn said these parties have reached a common understanding that is reflected in the recent Memorandums of Agreement with tribes and positions taken by the three states. But he didn't say that these accords have not come cheap. BPA is expected to spend more than $900 million over the next 10 years to support the combination of current BiOp mandates and pay for the 200 or so new habitat projects and hatchery improvements in the MOAs.

BPA administrator Steve Wright was on hand to discuss costs. He said BPA expects to spend an extra $75 million a year in new BiOp costs compared to the 2004 BiOp. That includes paying for more spill in some cases, and less in others. The final calls for more summer spill than the draft, but less than the previous BiOp, more habitat improvements, more actions to reduce predation, and more funding for research, monitoring and evaluation.

With $500 million more in dam modifications, and the MOA costs included, Wright said that added up to about a four-percent hike in wholesale power rates.

Corps of Engineers' spokesman Witt Anderson said the $500 million would pay for more spillway weirs and help reach passage survival goals--96 percent for spring chinook at each dam and 93 percent for summer migrants. Also, more will be spent to build walls in dam tailraces to improve smolt egress, and another $20 million will be budgeted to increase ESA-listed Snake River sockeye production. Efforts to reduce predation by birds in the estuary and sea lions at Bonneville Dam will also be increased. (Recent radiotelemetry tracking data of salmon collected by federal scientists has pointed to an 8.5 percent impact on the spring chinook run by sea lions).

Bureau of Reclamation regional director, Bill McDonald, said the new upper Snake BiOp will govern operation of his agency's 12 irrigation projects in eastern Oregon and southern Idaho for the next 30 years--to stay in synch with the Snake River adjudication--the water rights settlement in Idaho that promises 487 KAF a year for downstream fish flows.

McDonald said the timing of water releases may change from July and August to a late-April-May-June time frame, "to better meet the needs of listed fish." NMFS' latest modeling effort estimates that Snake spring chinook returns would decline by only about 1.5 percent without any USBR water.

Environmental groups, who have sued over both upper Snake and lower Snake operations, were quick to respond to the feds' latest plan, and tried to tie the recent collapse of the fall chinook run on the Sacramento River with Northwest fish issues.

"The 2008 total shutdown of our salmon fishery, though necessary, is devastating to the entire West Coast fishing fleet," Monterey Fish Market founder Paul Johnson said in a May 5 Earthjustice press release. "By pushing salmon to extinction, we are losing much more than a fish--we are losing a healthy food source, a culture, and a way of life. What we really need is our congressional leaders to demand and implement a solid salmon recovery plan for all our rivers."

But it was hard to get the enviro hype to jibe with the immediate reality--nearly 10,000 spring chinook that were counted at Bonneville Dam the day before the new salmon plan was released---after a successful inriver spring fishery that netted 22,000 chinook for recreational fishers and 6,000 more for commercial gillnetters.

In 1995, the entire spring run added up to only 10,398 chinook.

By the end of the week, environmental groups were still studying their options. Obviously, without tribal support, there is a chance they may not proceed with further BiOp litigation. It's plain the region has a bad case of BiOp fatigue

But the Fish Passage Center, whose technical analyses have been a mainstay for BiOp plaintiffs over the past eight years, had already posted a series of responses to some of the issues the new BiOp takes head on. That includes a rebuttal of a NMFS presentation that explains why the new BiOp is embracing a seasonal approach to barging spring chinook and steelhead.

The federal scientists had made a presentation of their proposal before the ISAB [Independent Scientific Advisory Board] on May 2. The ISAB has already given a nod of approval to the passage model the federal scientists have been using to weigh the relative merits of different hydro actions and barging scenarios.

The ISAB is expected to release a report on the subject in a couple of months, according to Ritchie Graves, NOAA Fisheries hydro division staffer, who explained the major differences between the draft Biop and the final document at a May 8 meeting of mid-level basin policymakers, the Implementation Team.

Graves said the BiOp writers decided to begin a maxed-out barging strategy on the lower Snake on May 7, when they plan to end all spill and collect as many fish as possible for transporting downriver past the hydro system. Their survival model says that moving up the no-spill window a week would capture more steelhead than the draft BiOp's call for beginning it on May 15 and running through June 4.

NMFS researchers say, and state and tribal scientists have finally agreed--that steelhead always do better when barged. On the other hand, overall spring chinook returns seem to fare better when the early migrants travel inriver and the later ones are barged.

This strategy is at odds with the current court-ordered spill strategy, rolled over from 2007 to this year as well, which never maxes barging. According to NMFS scientists, their data, to date, says that the current operation will reduce both steelhead and spring chinook returns compared to the BiOp strategy planned for 2009.

Graves said the new BiOp's barging plan would transport about 76 percent of the steelhead and 60 percent of the spring chinook.

Graves said the spill added over the past couple of years (ordered by the court after environmental and fishing groups convinced the judge that it was a better alternative), hasn't been analyzed because adult fish have not yet returned from those outmigrations. If future returns show more benefits from that high spill strategy, he said NMFS would change its recommendation, because the agency is committed to an adaptive management policy.

Judging from recent comments by Earthjustice attorney Todd True, his clients are not impressed with the ISAB's support for NMFS' passage model, and the way NMFS estimates latent fish mortality, or proposed changes to Montana reservoir operations that are designed to improve resident fish conditions in that state, while slightly reducing late summer flows in the mainstem Columbia.

"The laws that govern operation of the dams and reservoirs on the Columbia give the federal agencies broad authority to restore salmon and provide hydroelectric power. Indeed, the laws require the agencies to balance and meet both of these goals," said True, after the BiOp was released. "Both goals can be achieved too, but only if the government embraces the best available science and follows the law, steps it has failed to take so far."

Judge Redden told all parties at last winter's BiOp status conference that he was thinking of using an independent panel to sort out the salmon science, if he had to. A list of names had already been given to him. They were all previous members of the ISAB.

But unless environmental groups actually challenge the latest BiOp, Judge Redden's job is done. -Bill Rudolph

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