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NWF.109/Sept.13.2000
[1] NMFS Shuts Down Methow Irrigators Over Low Flows
[2] Council Faces Future Water Fights In New Planning Effort
[3] New BiOp Could Mean Big Change In Fall Power Generation
[4] Stelle To Step Down: NMFS Regional Administrator Leaves Sept. 15
[5] Upriver Tern Colony Takes Toll On Fish
[6] Federal Agencies Have Different Takes On 'Take'
[7] Extra Salmon Eggs May Fill Old Hatchery Basket
[8] Senators Grill Salmon Policymakers Over New BiOp

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[1] NMFS SHUTS DOWN METHOW IRRIGATORS OVER LOW FLOWS

The struggle in Washington state to save salmon is rapidly turning into a water fight, with private landholders and county officials on one side and federal and state agencies on the other. It has turned the region's "model watershed," northeast Washington's Methow Basin, into a two-year battle ground over questions of whether boosting instream flows will improve stocks of endangered chinook and steelhead.

Boosting flows in tributaries is an early action strategy that would help listed fish immediately, according to the new draft hydro BiOp, and it's also destined to become a big part of the Power Planning Council's subbasin planning effort, a huge task that should be finished by the end of next summer. But whether flow issues will be settled by then is another matter, as fish and water agencies go head to head with agriculturalists and small-time farmers like those in the Methow, who are convinced that the state and the federal government are looking for ways to grab their water rights.

The latest blow came when two ditch companies in the Methow Basin stopped drawing water for irrigation last month after tributary flows dropped to levels that NMFS has said was the minimum needed by spawning salmon. Since the ditches pass across federal forest land, operations are governed by new biological opinions, written by NMFS under its Sec. 7 authority under the ESA. NMFS also said in the BiOps that the region needed "tighter land-use and water-use regimes" to support more homes as well as recover the listed fish stocks.

The BiOps were not released until early August. Environmental groups had earlier sued NMFS to get the opinions out and filed an injunction calling for closing the ditches, which they later withdrew.

Dealing with private landholders over listed fish has led the federal fish agency to work with them on habitat conservation plans. NMFS has also been working with other local groups and the state Department of Ecology to hammer out a comprehensive Watershed Plan, which culminated in a draft MOA that no one has yet signed.

Methow resident and retired chemist Dick Ewing, volunteer lead for the local watershed planning unit, said it's tough dealing with the state because "the vision of the DOE is to protect the environment--it has nothing to do with using water as an economic resource."

The DOE does have a "preferred future" in mind and a vision statement on its website that calls for base surface flows and ground water levels "of adequate quantity and quality needed for properly functioning, healthy watersheds," along with "sufficient water to meet esthetic, recreational and other human needs..."

Ewing said part of the problem is that the state hasn't kept track of how much water is actually used in the basin. To remedy that, a three-year study is underway to come up with some answers. Golder and Associates, a consulting firm, will look at surface water uses; the USGS will investigate groundwater issues.

"But we're still looking for funding for the next two years of the study," said Ewing, who hoped it would reduce some of the uncertainties about water usage in the Methow Basin. One thing is assured, however; there aren't any quick fixes for fish in the offing

A 1992 USFWS report, led by biologist James Mullan, suggested that leaky, old irrigation ditches in the region actually recharged the aquifer and improved flows downstream. The study estimated that dams and irrigation, despite high water losses from the ditches, have reduced salmon habitat in the Methow by only 3 percent.

Earlier versions of the BiOps never mentioned Mullan's work, but NMFS has now begrudgingly accepted some parts in its latest ditch BiOps. But the agency still balked at accepting the recharging aquifer theory. Instead, it cited another 1992 study by the Department of Ecology that linked flows and fish habitat and NMFS concluded that adverse effects on fish from reduced groundwater storage "likely outweigh" any benefits from later recharge from irrigation withdrawals.

Ewing said the American Fisheries Society has reviewed the Mullan Report and gave it a "middle-of-the-road opinion," adding that nobody has yet reviewed the other study cited by NMFS (Caldwell & Catterson, 1992).

He said the feds still won't deal with a central tenet of Mullan's report: that the higher fish productivity in the basin came during periods of regular water withdrawals for irrigation. And he criticized the Caldwell report for basic errors in methodology, for having no control sites and picking half of the sample sites in the lower river where no spawning occurred.

But the larger unknown is whether NMFS will go along with the basin's watershed planning effort. "That's a big question," said Ewing, "will NMFS play ball?"

Ewing firmly believes that residents in the local watershed can make better decisions than a single government agency. NMFS had already cut in half instream flow requirements in some of its initial BiOps on the ditches, but that doesn't mean local residents feel any better about the situation.

Ewing explained his version of the situation in a recent op-ed piece in the Methow Valley News. "The PU [Planning Unit] is seeking to establish a dependable water supply that also takes into account fish needs, while the agencies, through target flows, are creating uncertainty. The recent advertisement by the DOE for water for streams is also in conflict with the outcomes of the PU. There is no developed plan with good science that identifies where the water saved will help fish. Selling off water rights that may be needed in the future doesn't make sense.

"So the answer to the key question of whether or not the prospective agreement is going to resolve anything depends upon how the agencies answer for themselves the following question: If you don't have time to do it right, when will you have time and money to fix it after you screw things up?" -Bill Rudolph


[2] COUNCIL FACES FUTURE WATER FIGHTS IN NEW PLANNING EFFORT

Boosting instream flows for fish is a common salmon policy theme that runs from the mainstem hydro corridor to the tiniest tributary. Power Planning Council members heard conflicting stories recently about how much water both salmon and people need to stay healthy. The topic is of interest because those tributaries flow through the subbasins where the Council will soon direct a major new planning effort--a job complicated by the fact that nearly half of the subbasins (22) are home to fish listed under the ESA.

Water is a sensitive issue in places such as Idaho, where it's scarce and/or over-appropriated. Long-time resource consultant Don Chapman once told Northwest Fishletter that "If you're talking about taking away somebody's water in Idaho, you run the risk of getting gut-shot."

But that wasn't the message Council members heard from ex-staffer and present NMFS attorney John Volkman, who said the new draft BiOp stresses the importance of improving flows in tributaries of the Columbia Basin. In an Aug. 30 presentation, he said there are few things the region could do that would have such immediate biological effects, but "if you conclude you can't do much about the flows, it will have big impacts on what you can do in other areas."

Volkman said that besides a BiOp-inspired effort, a second approach to improving tributary flows would be to minimize the role of government agencies that use water markets to address the question. "But we can offer technical assistance and facilitation," Volkman added.

To that end, the Council heard a presentation from economist Zach Willey of Environmental Defense, Inc., who outlined the possibility of creating of an NGO [Non-Governmental Organization] non-profit water brokerage that could acquire water rights and water pollution reduction credits, overseen by a broad-based board of directors representing public agencies, tribes, enviros, and private sector water- and land-based stakeholders.

He said such a brokerage could serve as a test. "But we could easily suffocate this in process," Willey cautioned. He said a 5-year demonstration project could be funded for $5 million to $10 million per year.

Representatives of water trust groups in Oregon and Washington explained how they work to purchase or lease water rights to improve flows in critical areas. Funded by private foundations, Washington Water Trust spokeswoman Patty McCleary said her group has worked to research water rights in basins where ESA-listed fish are found, such as the Yakima, Methow and Walla Walla.

But others poured water on the topic. Carl Dreher, head of Idaho's Water Resources Department, said water markets are not a new idea, "It's been around for decades," and "where it has worked, it's not a top-down approach."

Dreher said the approach outlined by earlier speakers was likely to fail. He said large-scale water transfers are not completed in months, but years, and could even take a decade or more. And such lengthy consultations do not arise from questions over the value of flows for fish, but rather from resolving questions of possible "injury" to other parties' rights.

He explained that Idaho has a water market and a long-established process for a water bank, pointing out that "some of you downstream folks have benefited from Idaho's water bank."

Idaho Wants Proof

But he noted that Idaho law doesn't recognize "instream flows" as a beneficial use for its water--a condition for transfer. Dreher was also up front on the main issue, telling the Council that he did not believe using Idaho's water to augment flows has benefited fish in the lower Snake--for spring or fall chinook. Dreher said comments by his state on the NMFS analysis of flows and fall chinook cited in the draft BiOp will soon be available. "The PIT-tag study NMFS is relying on is flawed," said Dreher.

Dreher used the "bottoms-up" approach employed by Idaho's Lemhi Basin water users as an example. When it was obvious the river was going dry for natural reasons, stakeholders voluntarily committed to reducing diversions to aid fish. "It went dry because water ran out, not because it was over-appropriated," he said.

But Dreher said NMFS decided the voluntary effort wasn't good enough, and he blamed it on faulty federal methodology that looked at instream flows throughout the river--"even though fish don't use all the river." He said IDF&G tells the local watershed group how much water is needed. But that doesn't keep NMFS from monitoring the river every day by helicopter, he added, noting that it took four dead smolts in the Lemhi to get the federal agency involved in the first place.

Council members heard a different story from Washington Department of Ecology official Ken Slattery, who explained that "water transfers to new uses is our future." Improving flows is critical for restoring fish, Slattery said, and it's part of the state's salmon strategy. He also pointed out that instream flows are a legal "new use" for water in Washington. However, he pointed out that the current two-year state DOE budget has only $1 million earmarked for purchasing water rights. The agency asked the legislature for $25 million.

Slattery neglected to mention that his agency has gone on record supporting the NMFS "no net loss" water policy in the Columbia River. A DOE spokesperson recently told Clearing Up that agency officials do "have questions" about the federal water policy, but didn't elaborate on how they were going to get any answers soon.

Slattery said a "willing seller" approach to getting more water for fish flows is much more acceptable to locals than a regulatory approach. But he cautioned that agencies should be careful they don't outbid each other in the quest for improving stream flows, noting that an integrated effort would be better and that boosted flows must be bundled with habitat and riparian improvements to be successful.

"But moving water out of income-production can have a serious effect on local economies," he cautioned, as harm from reductions in agriculture could spread to peripheral businesses such as seed companies and farm implement sales.

"Water will flow uphill towards money," Slattery said. Supplies will go to the highest bidder, and even the state salmon effort might not be able to compete with a semiconductor chip manufacturer for water rights. But by saving water for fish, Slattery said, "overall, the communities are going to be better off"--a sentiment obviously not shared by his Idaho counterparts or eastern Washington irrigators, who sent a letter to DOE Aug. 23 promising a lawsuit if the agency doesn't soon process pending applications for water in mainstem pools.

Idaho's Dreher said the watershed group in the Lemhi Basin would be opposed to renting their water because it would interfere with their right to divert early high flows. "Are other rights going to be injured, will the community fabric be changed?" he asked rhetorically.

Washington Council member Tom Karier said draft language in the NWPPC's new program calls for benefits from flow augmentation to be documented, a fact that Idaho folks seemed to support.

Jim Tucker of Idaho Power said his company is supportive of efforts to improve fish numbers, but doing things in the lower Snake like adding 3 kcfs to 100 kcfs flows won't accomplish anything. He implored Council members to support measures that "get more bang for the buck--where it will do some good." -B. R.


[3] NEW BIOP COULD MEAN BIG CHANGE IN FALL POWER GENERATION

Preliminary analysis of impacts from the 2000 hydro BiOp would add another $12 million to $15 million to the annual price tag for saving salmon, according to an analysis presented to the Power Planning Council at a work session in Portland two weeks ago. BiOp provisions would also result in an overall loss of about 90 aMW from current generation. That's equivalent to about one-tenth of Seattle's needs. At present, the total cost of lost power from operating the hydro system is around $220 million per year, said Council staffer John Fazio, who also stressed the preliminary nature of the results. Power costs included in the analysis haven't been updated, so the price tag may actually be up to 25 percent higher.

NMFS' new draft BiOp calls for higher November flows to aid ESA-listed chum salmon below Bonneville Dam--a strategy that could boost generating capacity by about 1400 aMW for that month. But implementing the new flow regime would also likely result in big drops in generation during December (-1000 aMW) and January (-1500 aMW), Fazio said. Also, there would be smaller losses in the spring, but more generation (up to 600 aMW) during summer months.

Other impacts include higher late summer flows and higher elevations at Libby and Hungry Horse reservoirs during April. Those projects would be operated at VARQ Flood Control, which uses more realistic outflow minimums than currently figured in analyzing flows.

The BiOp also calls for using water from Banks Lake and for negotiating with Canada to acquire non-Treaty storage supplies to boost summer flow augmentation.

According to Fazio's analysis, the new BiOp would affect operations in the Snake River mostly in spring, with a 125 cfs boost in flows during March, but a reduction of nearly the same amount in April.

Other staffers told the Council that the prospective BiOp could mean some big changes to the fish and wildlife program, since NMFS has listed some "priority" subbasins for major salmon improvements--regions that until now were outside the traditional scope of the BPA-funded program. These include the Entiat, Wenatchee, Cowlitz, Lewis and Willamette subbasins.

Montana Council member John Etchart was concerned that funding salmon recovery efforts in these new areas would come at the expense of the traditional program. Staffer Doug Marker said the BiOp is "very quiet" on the subject, and doesn't specify "a whole lot of different proposals."

Council chair Larry Cassidy wondered how the BiOp measures for the Lewis and Cowlitz subbasins mesh with the FERC relicensing processes in those areas and the fish plans being developed for them. No one present had any answers.

Staffer Mark Walker suggested the Council write a letter to the Congressional delegation calling for legislation to develop supplemental funding for these elements of the BiOp. Council members supported the idea and voted for it unanimously.

Walker said efforts are underway to coordinate with NMFS over these issues, as well as other questions that have arisen about the processes--including the status of so-called "early actions." It's unclear whether they would go through the same process as other fish and wildlife proposals.

What is obvious to all is the renewed importance of the region's fish and wildlife program in satisfying off-site mitigation requirements called for by NMFS. As for costs, Marker said the BiOp's lack of specifics makes estimation very difficult.

But staffers said it seems that much of the offsite effort called for in the new BiOp is already being funded. However, they said they need feedback from NMFS to summarize "what is already going on in the direct program."

Montana Council member Stan Grace was a bit more pessimistic. Commenting on the array of strategies proposed in the new BiOp, Grace said, "NMFS is in the mess we're trying to get out of." -B. R.


[4] STELLE TO STEP DOWN: NMFS REGIONAL ADMINISTRATOR WILL LEAVE SEPT. 15

Northwest NMFS administrator Will Stelle announced last week he will leave the federal agency this coming Friday. Rumors have been circulating for months that Stelle would enter private law practice. It was reported that he would be joining the Seattle law firm of Preston, Gates and Ellis. Stelle has served as regional administrator since 1994. Donna Darm, assistant regional administrator, will take over Stelle's duties until another administrator is chosen, which isn't likely until after the fall presidential election. -B. R.


[5] UPRIVER TERN COLONIES TAKE TOLL ON ENDANGERED FISH

A small colony of Caspian terns that set up housekeeping in eastern Washington last spring may have consumed as many salmon and steelhead migrating down the upper and mid-Columbia River as are killed passing a single mainstem dam. Although less than 200 birds were counted nesting on Solstice Island in the Potholes Reservoir, 40 miles east of the river, the 80-mile round trip commute to Wanapum Pool didn't seem to slow them down when it came time to feed their young.

Douglas County PUD biologist Shane Bickford told NW Fishletter last week that a cursory three-hour survey of the nesting site last July turned up over 750 PIT-tags from juvenile salmon and steelhead that were part of a research program studying juvenile survival, along with more than 50 radio tags. PUDs in the region released nearly 4,000 radio-tagged fish, Bickford said, so a rough calculation could peg consumption in the 5 percent range--given the preliminary nature of the survey. Data from the lower Columbia estuary has shown that radio-tagged fish seem more susceptible to predation by birds than PIT-tagged fish.

Since both wild steelhead and spring chinook stocks are listed as "endangered" under the ESA, the upriver terns are attracting a fair amount of attention.

"I must get ten calls a day about the birds," Bickford said, who stressed that it's way too early to come up with a robust estimate of the bird predation. About four million hatchery smolts were released from the region last spring, along with a much smaller number of wild fish.

Biologists also discovered seven PIT-tags from Snake River juveniles at the Solstice Island nesting site--pretty good evidence that the birds had picked up meals in that contested drainage as well.

Another tern colony further downstream at Crescent Island, near the mouth of the Walla Walla River, is comprised of about five times as many birds.

But the Potholes terns disappeared quickly. "They left early compared to other colonies," Bickford said, probably because of the smaller numbers of juvenile salmon migrating out of the mid-Columbia compared to other parts of the drainage. The adult terns left a considerable number of fledglings behind, he said, but there was also some evidence that humans may have harassed the birds into leaving.

"At this time, we can't tell whether it's a viable colony or not." He said there was evidence of terns inhabiting the area in 1999 as well. Smaller nesting sites have also been found in the area, at Banks Lake and Sprague Lake.

Other small colonies of Caspian terns have been found in southeast Oregon. But most birds nest in the lower Columbia estuary, where biologists lured up to 10,000 nesting pairs from one island to another farther downstream, where the birds' diet would be less focused on juvenile salmonids and steelhead. -B. R.


[6] FEDERAL AGENCIES HAVE DIFFERENT TAKES ON 'TAKE'

Two federal agencies responsible for recovering ESA-listed fish have different approaches that ultimately allow the killing of some "threatened" salmon and steelhead stocks.

The National Marine Fisheries Service allows the kill of a threatened species only if hatchery fish of the same species are present in the water, and the hatchery fish are not themselves listed. NMFS calls this an "incidental" take.

For instance, an angler can go to the Sandy River near Portland in December to fish for winter steelhead, a threatened species, as long as he is fishing for the hatchery stock. Of course, wild, listed fish are also caught, although they are supposed to be released unharmed back to the river. Some die, but NMFS biologists have decided that too few wild fish are killed from the fishery to bump them into endangered status.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service takes a different stand. The Service allows the "direct" take of a threatened species as long as the killing does not cause the species to be reclassified as an endangered species. USF&WS recognizes that the states are under a lot of political pressure to continue to allow fishing. For example, Nevada allows its anglers to kill Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, a species listed under the Endangered Species Act since the early 1970s.

USF&WS biologist Antonio Bentivogilo said the legal reasoning behind the two agencies' different approaches to kills of threatened species is obscure. He said the issue has been coming up for more discussion all the time. NMFS is requiring each state to adopt fishery management plans, and when the federal agency approves them, they could allow the direct take of threatened species. This change will begin in 2001, affecting all fisheries.

The policy confuses both the public and some local officials. "In the public's mind, killing listed fish does not make sense," said David Moskowitz, salmon recovery coordinator for Portland Metro. "Especially when they may be facing restrictions on land use to protect the same fish that are being caught just downstream."

Moskowitz wondered how NMFS could allow a direct harvest of wild fall chinook in the Sandy River, when the fall chinook fishery in Washington's Lewis River is closed. Both fall chinook populations are listed as threatened, yet one is open to a direct take by anglers. "This is inconsistent with the way listed steelhead are managed on the Sandy," Moskowitz said.

ODFW biologist Craig Foster confirmed that angling is allowed on the Sandy River fall chinook. "The fishery will extend through the end of October," he said.

Even though these fish are listed as threatened, the Oregon fish agency has kept the season open until they change the rules in response to a required Fishery Management Plan under the NMFS section 4(d) rule. This means that fall chinook will not get protection from anglers until next year. But Foster noted that the late run of fall chinook in the Sandy would be protected because they come in later and are described as a winter run chinook.

Fishing for fall chinook in Washington's Lewis River is closed because the run is not expected to meet the spawner escapement goal this year. According to Guy Norman of ODFW's harvest management staff, the run may not reach its escapement goal for several years.

"The harvest rate for fall chinook is 10 percent for lower Columbia River wild fall chinook," Norman said, "and the Lewis River fall chinook are the primary focus. Because there are no take prohibitions on fall chinook until next year, the states can operate a fishery. But next year these runs will be protected." -Bill Bakke


[7] EXTRA SALMON EGGS MAY FILL OLD HATCHERY BASKET

The dispute over whether to destroy more than a million salmon eggs from a mongrel breed of hatchery salmon took a new turn this week, now that it looks like a place has been found to cultivate them.

Greg Pratschner, manager of the USF&WS Leavenworth hatchery complex in eastern Washington, told NW Fishletter that once the 1.6 million eggs are hatched, it's likely the fry will be trucked downriver to the Ringold state fish hatchery near Pasco, where they will live until it's time to plant them in the wild.

Then it's another truck ride back up the basin, said Pratschner, "probably to the Okanogan [River], because NMFS doesn't want them in the Methow."

Sen. Slade Gorton (R-WA) promised to come up with the $184,000 in funding to raise and mark the extra fish, saying that "we should be reviewing every possible method to preserve and restore endangered salmon." He said the federal order to destroy Carson eggs was "perverse, in light of NMFS's efforts to restrict tribal and sportsfishing, restrict water flows for irrigation and recreation, and impose stringent land use regulations for habitat."

The eggs were taken from the so-called Carson stock of spring chinook, a strain that NMFS considers to be "non-native" to the Methow. They were culled from returning fish in the upper Columbia Basin at the federal fish hatchery of the Methow River at Winthrop, WA. Before the fish returned, federal fish managers ordered the facility to keep only eggs from the Methow composite stock. Although it's a hatchery stock, the Methow composite is also part of the ESA-listed run of spring chinook in that part of the state.

The feds are trying to reduce numbers of the Carson stock because they say the Methow stock is a better genetic fit for the watershed. The fish could be separated, since they carried different coded wire tags in their heads, but the tags couldn't be read until the fish were killed.

But the news about Ringold shows that tough new policies to reduce impacts of non-indigenous hatchery fish on wild stocks are not yet being carried out. The Ringold facility was already slated to stop raising any more Carson fish. Planting the fish in the Okanogan, where there is no longer a native run, runs counter to guidelines developed in the All-H Paper and the NWPPC's new program that calls for more emphasis on using indigenous stocks to supplement runs.

Critics, however--including locals, tribes and irrigators--feel otherwise, saying that the more numerous Carson fish should be allowed to propagate throughout the basin. The groups met earlier this year to voice concerns about the federal policy.

The Carson-based stock came originally from spring chinook trapped at Bonneville Dam years ago and was used as broodstock for fish raised at the Carson National Hatchery in the Bonneville Pool. The original stock was a mixture of upper Columbia and Snake River spring chinook and was planted in tributaries of both rivers. Pratschner said it was even used in Alaska and the Great Lakes.

Pratschner said the Methow stock is based on a chinook run that returned to the Winthrop hatchery in 1992--"but 60 out of the 100 original fish were Carson stock, anyway," he said.

The other main genetic strain came from fish trapped at Rock Island Dam in the late 1930s and early 1940s and used as brood stock to make up for losses from the construction of Grand Coulee Dam--a fact that NMFS considers important: though the trapped fish were heading to different tributaries, they were all upper Columbia stocks to start with.

In late July, tribes led a demonstration against the NMFS policy, during which protestors built a weir in front of the Winthrop hatchery, in hopes that excess returning adults would spawn naturally in the river.

This year's good fish returns--numbers that Pratschner attributed to high river flows and "fantastic" ocean conditions from the La Nina phenomenon--have created headaches throughout the Northwest as many hatcheries filled up with surplus salmon uncaught because of harvest restrictions brought about by the ESA.

Another one million eggs from Carson-stock fish that returned to the Methow are already going to the Big White Ponds on the lower Columbia, and 100,000 fry will be outplanted in Omak Creek.

The basin is still full of Carson-based genetic material and it doesn't look like there will be any less in the foreseeable future. The Leavenworth Hatchery near Wenatchee--where all spring chinook are from the Carson stock--had a surplus of 11,000 salmon this year: 3,400 fish were caught by tribes and 1,800 caught by sportfishers. Hatchery manager Pratschner said it looks like even more fish will be returning next year. -B. R.


[8] SENATORS GRILL SALMON POLICYMAKERS OVER NEW BIOP

Two Senate hearings this week focused on salmon recovery efforts in the Northwest. On Sept. 12, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-OR) led a Water and Power Subcommittee hearing on the BiOp, rescheduled from the end of July. On Sept. 13, a two-day hearing began on similar salmon issues, led by Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, (R-ID) of the Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Water.

The hearings gave NMFS regional administrator Will Stelle a chance to deliver his swan song before entering the world of private law practice. He explained essentially what he told the region in July, when the draft Biological Opinion on hydropower went public, outlining the federal strategy of aggressive "offsite mitigation" along with more fish-saving operations at mainstem dams to help recover ESA-listed stocks. Stelle assured skeptical politicians that the new draft hydro BiOp was not really a plan to breach the lower Snake dams, even though it calls for preliminary engineering studies on the strategy. He said the BiOp calls for the studies to bolster the feds' position in any future lawsuit over the BiOp. "If we took dams off the table, that would not be a defensible position," Stelle told Crapo.

The day before, Sen. Slade Gorton said the BiOp's language also opened the door for potential removal of dams other than those on the Snake. In written remarks, he promised to introduce legislation "preventing the use of any federal funds towards breaching dams in the next fiscal year."

Gorton also brought up the issue of recent power emergencies on the West Coast that forced BPA to spend $60 million to keep the lights on, while continuing a spill program at dams "to save a relatively few number of fish," which "fuels the cynicism of Northwest citizens who already believe that federal agencies are squandering money in the name of salmon recovery."

BPA administrator Judi Johansen told senators that her agency was committed to working with the region on a comprehensive plan for recovering fish. She said the hydro operators will do even more to aid fish passage, and take "aggressive steps" to further improve juvenile fish survival, even though past actions have already doubled it since the 1970s. She said her agency would manage flows to provide more natural flows in the spring and summer, keep on barging fish to spread the risk, and improve spill management. She noted that the new BiOp measures would not result in a "significant additional derating" of the hydro system as in 1995, when the earlier BiOp called for more spill at dams to keep fish away from turbines.

Environmental groups announced new lawsuits the day before the hearings began. Filed in Seattle, they challenged NMFS' efforts to implement 4(d) rules to help salmon by regulating all activities that affect fish populations, from forestry to housing development up and down the West Coast. Their main target is the Forest and Fish agreement hammered out in Washington state by feds, state agencies, private timber interests and tribes. Environmental groups walked away from the talks last year as agreement among other parties grew near, saying the proposed measures didn't do enough for fish. Groups that sued NMFS this week include the Washington Environmental Council, the Pacific Rivers Council, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations and the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance.

Outgoing NMFS administrator Stelle had already defended the Forest and Fish agreement in public forums this year, saying that once NMFS approved the measure as good for salmon, any third-party lawsuits against the 4(d) rules wouldn't have "legs" because NMFS had already OK'd the biological value of the measures, a judgment that had the full weight of the ESA behind it. -B. R.

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