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NW Fishletter #231, May 24, 2007

[1] Federal Agencies Release Newest Salmon Plan

Three federal agencies have released a draft of their newest prescription for keeping the lights on and seeing that ESA-listed salmon populations in the Columbia Basin don't wink out.

It's the third try since 2000 for the agencies to write a suite of operations for both hydro and other H's that hopes to keep dams from being breached and for fish numbers to climb. The 900-page opus will now be turned over to NOAA Fisheries, whose job is to determine whether the proposed action [PA] jeopardizes the survival and recovery of listed populations in the Snake and Columbia rivers.

Environmental groups who led litigation that tossed out the last two hydro BiOps (NWF v. NMFS) have already characterized the new proposal as more of the same old strategies. But in the end, that may be its saving grace.

The third rewrite may be a charm because BPA, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Corps of Engineers have gone back to the bones of the 2000 BiOp to find a way to please federal judge James Redden, who tossed out the previous ones. At a March status conference, he remarked off-handedly he would OK a new BiOp that would keep the dams in place and be similar to the 2000 BiOp with more definitive funding attached to make sure things happened--"something like the 2000 and get the money."

Redden threw out the 2000 BiOp principally because habitat restoration actions designed to improve fish numbers weren't "reasonably certain to occur." The latest proposal commits more funding in that area, with BPA saying that their habitat spending is going up from $21 million to $35 million annually over the next three-year budget cycle--more than a 60 percent increase over habitat spending in the 2000 BiOp.

The draft PA says BPA will boost habitat spending even more by 2010, up to $40 million to $45 million a year between 2010 and 2017, and concentrate on tributaries where fish populations could be expected to improve. They said it will focus on areas where chinook and steelhead need the most help, the upper Columbia in eastern Washington and the Snake River region in eastern Washington and Oregon. The Bureau of Reclamation has also committed to spending up to $6 million a year, subject to annual appropriations.

The new proposal calls for adoption of the Montana plan--which means a more flexible refill and drafting policy for Libby and Hungry Horse reservoirs that improves conditions for resident fish below those projects. But it reduces slightly the amount of water available for August flows in the mainstem Columbia, but improves them in September.

The PA also calls for more discussion with Canada about the possibility of acquiring a million acre-feet of non-treaty storage for flow augmentation, and it embraces the Washington state plan to acquire more water out of Lake Roosevelt in a not-yet-done deal with the Colville Tribe that would help fish and farmers, especially in low-flow years, when the reservoir behind Grand Coulee could be drawn down nearly two feet.

The agencies say that the added 60 kaf from upper Snake reservoirs, as specified in the Snake River Adjudication is enough to help fish downstream. Environmental groups had also sued to add more water than that from BuRec's storage reservoirs in southeastern Idaho for listed fish in the lower Snake.

The proposed action also sticks with flow targets to aid spring and summer fish migrations--even though the feds have found little benefit from flow augmentation. It also sticks with the interim spill strategy approved by the court in 2006--with one big difference.

The new PA calls for a goal of 95-percent spring chinook smolt survival at each dam and for 93-percent survival for summer migrants. This means current operations like the 24-hr/100 kcfs spring spill for fish at Bonneville Dam could be reduced if research shows the 95-percent survival goal can be reached at lower levels of spill. Since the installation of a new corner collector, the Corps already has accumulated a fair amount of data that shows the Bonneville spillway route has the highest mortality rate compared to other routes of passage.

Some changes to the fish transport strategy are also outlined in the document, including a later start for barging spring chinook, which would allow them a better chance at survival after nearshore conditions have improved. However, there is a tradeoff--the change is expected to significantly reduce the survival of barged steelhead since they seem to survive early entrance into the ocean just fine compared to the chinook. Passage analysis by the COMPASS model estimated a 6 percent improvement in spring chinook returns from the change, but steelhead SARs would go down by 9 percent.

The draft PA also calls for maxed-out barging in late spring when flows are low and water temperatures are up--similar to the potential change in this year's barging strategy that was recommended by NOAA Fisheries at last week's meeting of the Technical Management Team (see story 5).

Critics of the modeling results may have a harder time convincing the judge compared to prior BiOp litigation since the collaborative COMPASS model has been positively reviewed by a group of independent scientists--the ISAB [Independent Scientific Review Board]--who examine contentious issues in the salmon recovery world for both NMFS and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

In the past, Judge Redden has discussed the potential need for some scientific questions to be addressed by an independent body such as the ISAB. The board recently found some states and tribes' analysis of "latent mortality" to be a waste of time--another issue that has been raised by plaintiff environmental and fishing groups to counter federal analyses.

Another point in the new PA that will undoubtedly raise controversy is a new proposal that calls for a maximized barging strategy for summer migrants in the lower Snake if the numbers of chinook collected falls below 1,000 fish for three straight days. That means all spill shuts off to corral as many migrants as possible for barging below the hydro system. If numbers jump past 1,000 for two days in a row after that, spill turns back on.

If this scenario had been in place in 2006, spill would have been shut off at lower Snake dams by the middle of last July, saving BPA ratepayers millions of dollars.

But the PA recognized that it couldn't really analyze the future of the Snake River fall chinook because of the reservoir-type lifestyle of some fish discovered in recent years. All past survival data was collected when a maxed-out barging strategy was in place as well, which is a lot different from the court-ordered summer spill regime now in place, which is designed to keep half the fish in the river. The old strategy seemed to help the population, with help from a large supplementation effort, it has steadily increased in recent years.

In fact, the PA shows considerable evidence that most populations in the Snake and Upper Columbia have much improved since 1990--and their abundance is still trending upwards--a fact that NMFS will likely use in their jeopardy analysis. That's a far cry from plaintiffs' assertions that the runs are spiraling towards extinction, a notion that Judge Redden seems to embrace as well.

The latest analyses show that Snake River spring/summer chinook and middle Columbia steelhead are in pretty good shape. However, Snake River steelhead, along with Upper Columbia spring chinook and steelhead still need more help, and the Snake sockeye ESU is in extremely poor condition, despite the rah-rah language in the draft PA.

The draft PA considers the sockeye supplementation effort a success, since more than 312 adult sockeye have returned to Redfish Lake since the 1990s--a 20-fold increase, even though another group of independent scientists suggested pulling the plug on the sockeye supplementation strategy last year.

Improving Prospects

In its analysis, the document looks at each segment in the different population groups that make up each ESU, are compared base case status (1980-2000) to current status, and then compare current to prospective status from proposed operations.

For Snake River spring chinook, the draft PA estimated that the stocks got an 18-percent boost in survival from hydro improvements since 1980, including benefits from the delayed start of transport. It concludes that another 6.5-percent gain in survival can be achieved by future improvements in the hydro system, but more benefits from 3 percent to 43 percent (depending on the sub-population) might be expected from improving tributary habitat over the next 10 years, along with a 2-percent improvement in survival from reducing bird predation and another 1-percent gain by increasing the pikeminnow bounty program.

All in all, the improvements are expected to further reduce risks of short-term extinction, which are already low since many of the small populations have been growing since 1990, according to the draft PA, which includes an extensive "gap' analysis and extinction analysis, which notes the considerable uncertainties involved in such modeling exercises.

The draft PA also pointed to a hatchery reform effort now underway in the Columbia Basin to ensure that the recovery of wild stocks isn't impeded by returning hatchery fish.

The document also calls for improving assessment of harvest effects by improving the accuracy of counting harvested salmon and steelhead. The draft mentions a discrepancy over numbers of sport-harvested steelhead above McNary Dam that is currently under discussion that may impact the trend analysis of the Snake River steelhead ESU.

The agencies propose to develop a plan to add PIT tag detections to mainstem fisheries, as well as promote more fisheries that reduce the harvest of listed stocks and develop fishing techniques like the fish traps funded for the Colville Tribe that can return listed fish alive to rivers.

Federal attorneys, in their report to Judge Redden, said that the draft PA will be turned in to NMFS, but noted that "it does not reflect all of the on-going discussions with the sovereigns. These discussions may, and in all likelihood will, result in additional or modified, actions in many, if not all Hs."

One of those potential actions that recently came to light was a proposal by the state of Oregon to draw down the reservoir behind John Day to minimum operating pool--to improve fish travel time and survival. It is nowhere to be found in the draft PA, but sources say the state is still supporting the strategy

A status hearing for all parties to discuss the proposed action is scheduled for Judge Redden's Portland courtroom on June 20. Just last month, the 9th Circuit Court upheld Redden's ruling that tossed out the 2004 BiOp. The latest draft PA turns its back on the 2004 BiOp, where NOAA Fisheries had separated dam operations from the dams' existence, which were put in the baseline analysis. Then proposed hydro operations were measured against operations maxed for fish benefits, limited only by non-discretionary factors like flood control. The analysis found that dam operations did not jeopardize the ESA-listed stocks of salmon and steelhead.

Redden ruled that the analysis was faulty for a number of reasons, including the fact that the feds' analysis included only actions within the discretion of the agencies. He also said the dams' adverse effects should have been added to the cumulative effects of all the other actions that affected the listed stocks. -Bill Rudolph

The following links were mentioned in this story:

BiOp Court Documents

Oregon Meets With Critics Over Drawdown Issue, NW Fishletter #229, April 16, 2007

Quit Trying To Measure Latent Mortality, Says Science Panel, NW Fishletter #229, April 16, 2007

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