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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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.
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