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NW Fishletter #238, November 2, 2007

[1] Feds Give Thumbs Up To Latest Salmon Plan

Before the draft BiOps for the hydro system and Upper Snake operations even hit the Internet this week, the latest attempt by NOAA Fisheries to satisfy a federal judge was taking flak from environmental groups, who started up a new round of dam breaching rhetoric, claiming it was too little and too late to aid ESA-listed Snake River salmon and steelhead stocks.

But on Oct. 31, the feds carefully explained just what they did in order to satisfy Oregon federal judge James Redden's concerns. They returned to the bones of the 2000 hydro BiOp with its all-H approach, added hundreds of pages of updated research and analysis with their peer-reviewed passage model, and made a serious effort at making sure that actions to improve habitat "are reasonably certain to occur," one of the principal reasons Redden threw the old BiOp out.

NOAA Fisheries regional administrator Bob Lohn said the feds will now accept comment on the latest draft from parties in the ongoing litigation -- environmental and fishing groups, tribes, states, and other parties to the lawsuit -- with a final document coming after that.

Lohn said the collaboration ordered by Redden has helped the process and created a new BiOp that is quite different from its predecessors. "In the last two years," he said, "we've held over 300 technical and policy meetings with remand working groups. We've drawn upon hundreds of millions of dollars of research that's taken place over the last decade. I think collectively, that process and the better science has helped narrow the disputes and draw us closer on solutions."

He mentioned serious, ongoing settlement discussions, "I know we will all be striving to work toward an agreement in the near term." Conspicuously absent from the complainers' side were lower Columbia tribes who are still working with BPA to finish agreements that are likely to cost plenty but are designed to ensure that the tribes will support the new 10-year salmon plan when it is finalized around the end of January. Lohn said it was up to the judge to schedule the end of comment period and deadline for the final opinion.

Lohn said the new BiOp has raised the bar for determining jeopardy, and his agency wants to see all seven ESUs affected by the hydro system "trending toward recovery."

He said the new BiOp is also different because it goes into much greater detail than previous ones which focused on specific groups of fish at the ESU level. He pointed out that the technical recovery team for the Interior Columbia has identified 78 distinct populations in those seven ESUs. "Both the status determination, that is, the look at how are they doing, and the mitigation -- what do they need -- has been custom-tailored to those 78 populations," Lohn said.

"The picture that emerges is not pretty, but it's hopeful," he added. Some populations are in dire shape, others could rebound with modest improvements, "and there are some in really pretty good condition."

Lohn said the new opinion uses nine different metrics to assess population growth, while the 2000 BiOp used only one. However, he said the new BiOp does follow the older one in a significant way -- it also finds that hydro actions alone do jeopardize the ESA-listed runs, and includes an RPA [Reasonable, Prudent Alternative] which, if carried out, should avoid jeopardizing listed fish. He said the new document contains 73 sets of detailed actions ("When I say detailed, most of them have a dozen or more specific requirements. Some of them have hundreds of requirements.")

He said the actions were screened to make sure they were certain to occur, so they would pass the judge's standard, and allow recovery planners to know where the benefits would occur.

Lohn said the most important assumption to make about predicting future fish numbers is how ocean conditions will affect them. He said the dataset being used in the BiOp analysis has only four years favorable to salmon and 18 years unfavorable, so the feds' analysis of the future is likely very conservative. If near-term ocean conditions are similar to what has occurred since the turn of the century, then "the results obtained should be considerably better than those displayed in this opinion," he added.

Breaching Not An Option

Lohn said lower Snake dam breaching wasn't analyzed for several reasons. First, it wasn't a "technical necessity" to achieve success for the affected runs. Also, breaching would only impact four of the 13 listed ESUs in the Columbia Basin.

And since the judge ruled that the BiOp should include only those actions "reasonably certain to occur," Lohn said the federal agencies cannot propose such a measure because it is not within their authority. "Legally, it's off the board as well."

The biggest spending boost in the new plan will come in the habitat arena -- about $45 million a year from BPA for tributary and estuary restoration, according the BPA Administrator Steve Wright, along with $500 million on dam passage improvements over the 10-year life of the opinion.

The Corps of Engineers' Witt Anderson, chief of its fish policy division, said the new draft BiOp's spill and fish transportation strategies are the result of the latest biological information on smolt-to-adult return rates from various routes of passage. He said the Corps and NOAA Fisheries have optimized fish survival in the operation plans for each of the dams from the perspective of juvenile passage survival, egress conditions in the tailrace, reducing forebay delay, and changing powerhouse operations and spill to improve adult passage.

Anderson said there have been some adjustments to the transport strategies on the lower Snake to provide optimum benefits for steelhead, who seem to benefit from barging all spring long, while chinook do better migrating inriver during early spring.

He also said the Corps would be evaluating a higher level of spill at Bonneville Dam in the early spring next year, while it plans to end spill at lower Snake dams after August 1 if juvenile fall chinook numbers decline significantly, but turn it back on if fish numbers bump up again.

Lohn took issue with spill advocates. "I wonder if the person raising that issue has kept up with the science or technology. At one point, spill was one of the best ways to get fish past the hydro projects, and increasing spill did increase survival. But since then, we've been moving to, what I would say is a better approach, that probably many of the readers may have not understood."

He described the spillway weirs now in place at some dams that are biologically "much more successful" and use less water than traditional spillways.

BPA user groups predictably lined up behind the draft BiOp. "Remember that this is already by far the largest species recovery program in the country and represents an enormous investment by electricity ratepayers," Scott Corwin, executive director of the Public Power Council, told NW Fishletter. "So, it is helpful that the BiOps are taking a science-based approach to better prioritize the measures needed to move the effort forward."

"The proposed actions and the new BiOp are on the right track. It certainly looks like this new BiOp will rebuild endangered fish runs while maintaining the many economic benefits of the Columbia and Snake River dams," said Glenn Vanselow, Executive Director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association.

Terry Flores, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, said the draft salmon plan "is unprecedented in its collaborative development and uses a rigorous science approach never before seen. This is in stark contrast to claims made by the usual outliers that this plan is more of the same."

She said the new draft is notably different. "Clearly, the environmental extremists and harvesters had their minds made up long ago. They would not support any plan that rejects the impractical notion of removing dams which provide the Northwest with renewable, carbon-free energy and help our local communities prosper."

But Earthjustice attorney Todd True told the New York Times that the new Biop wasn't much different from previous attempts. ""It's the same pig in a different tutu, but it still can't dance."

The environmental group's press release claimed that inriver migrants that were helped by court-ordered spill in 2005 and 2006 came back in "far greater numbers" than fish barged from the lower Snake.

But federal biologists like the Corp's Witt Anderson were perplexed by the Earthjustice statement. "I don't know where they are getting that information," he told NW Fishletter, "because we certainly don't have any results yet." He said the analysis wouldn't be complete until the 2009, 2010 and 2011 adult salmon returns are in.

The new draft BiOp doesn't call for any cuts in harvest rates or more water for flow augmentation, though it does tweak Bureau of Reclamation operations on the Upper Snake to add more flow in the late spring, which reduces it slightly in the summer when there are few fish still migrating in the Snake.

But some fishing groups were not impressed. "This plan is a platinum-plated roadmap to extinction, and for the sportfishing community, that means more job losses and economic hardship," said Liz Hamilton, Executive Director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association.

And others were still beating up on the hydro system despite growing evidence that juvenile fish survival in the Columbia and Snake may be pretty good compared to some large rivers without dams. "Science continues to tell us that upstream habitats and population genetics are suitable for survival of Snake River stocks. What we don't have is reasonable passage through the hydrosystem," said Dr. Jack Williams, Senior Scientist for Trout Unlimited. "Time is slipping away for these upriver stocks and unfortunately this new plan falls far short of providing the needed help."

Where Do Fish Die?

But instead of the same old pig in a new tutu, as some have characterized the new BiOp, other critics say it's more like a pig in a poke. Portland attorney James Buchal still takes issue with the whole notion of augmenting flows to aid fish.

Buchal, who has represented Snake-Columbia irrigators in past litigation, said NOAA Fisheries still can't demonstrate a significant relationship between river flow and salmon survival, though NMFS salmon passage modelers say they have seen some evidence of it in their interpretation of recent survival data.

Using a Halloween theme, Buchal lambasted the new BiOp in his own analysis published on the web this week. He said the agency has dropped the ball in another fundamental way as well, by not estimating how many fish would die in the river, even if the dams weren't there.

"But the biggest ghost is the ghost of natural mortality, he wrote. "As more and more data are gathered, it is now clear beyond doubt that most of the young salmon and steelhead migrating down lengthy rivers on the West Coast die before they ever reach the sea. Indeed, it appears we can actually measure higher system survival through eight Columbia and Snake River dams than has been measured in natural, undammed rivers."

Some preliminary evidence shows that Buchal may be on the right track. In an Oct. 2 memo from NOAA Fisheries' own Science Center to the Portland-based division responsible for writing the BiOp, federal scientist John Ferguson outlined results of recent acoustic tag research by different agencies in the Fraser, Sacramento and Columbia rivers.

The memo makes it plain that the results are preliminary, and also says "it is not appropriate to imply their meaning regarding policy issues at this time." But it reported that Canadian researcher David Welch has estimated that acoustically-tagged juvenile spring chinook in the undammed Fraser survived their 2006 migration (several hundred kilometers) at a rate that ranged from 14 to 34 percent.

That's less than half the current survival rate of Snake River spring chinook from Idaho past eight dams to the ocean.

The new BiOp says passage improvements could boost average survival in the Columbia from 49 percent to 55 percent, and with tweaks to spill and transport, a net gain of 8 percent to adult returns could be achieved. That's not counting projected benefits from improving tributary habitat, which ranges from less than 1 percent to 41 percent for some populations.

The Oct. 2 NMFS memo also reports that in the regulated Sacramento River, only 2 percent of subyearling (fall) chinook and 5 percent of steelhead survived their migration from below Shasta Dam to the Golden Gate Bridge in 2007, an extremely low flow year in that region.

The new BiOp hasn't quantified expected benefits to fall chinook in the Snake and Columbia because survival research has been confounded by so many juveniles holding over in reservoirs and the estuary, migrating later when detection systems are turned off.

Other NMFS researchers say there is little correlation between inriver juvenile survivals and adult returns since ocean conditions seem to play such an important role in the size of adult runs. At a science/policy confab in September, NMFS scientist John Williams even questioned the value of developing survival goals for juvenile passage through the Columbia and Snake hydro system. Fellow federal scientist Steve Smith pointed out to the freshwater-centric crowd that most of the fish died in the ocean, not the river.

The NOAA Fisheries scientists also reported on their latest modeling results at the September meeting, which showed that each dam and reservoir accounted for about 10 percent of juvenile mortality, with about half occurring at each dam, and the other half in the accompanying river reach. -Bill Rudolph

The following links were mentioned in this story:

New Draft Biops

Analysis of New Biops

Oct. 2 memo by John Ferguson

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