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NW Fishletter #292, August 5, 2011

[2] Analysis: Salmon Plan On Snooze Alarm

While we were all waiting in mind-numbing anticipation for U.S. District Judge James Redden to rule on the latest salmon plan for the Columbia Basin, some wild fish advocates were still creating plenty of mischief.

Let's face it. No one expected the judge to take this long. In prior salmon rulings, he handed down his decisions soon after oral arguments were heard in his courtroom. It's hard to stay focused, much less remember what everybody has been arguing about for the past 10 years--even though plaintiffs keep trying to bring it up.

Until last Tuesday, there had been no word from the court since May 8, when the judge abruptly ended a hearing around noon, mumbling that he had his questions answered. So, if he had all the answers, what took him so long?

Federal attorneys thought he might rule by July 8, to comply with a recent Justice Department directive that suggested federal judges speed up their processes and rule within two months of their last hearing on a case.

One optimistic attorney involved in the litigation thought Redden might be crafting his ruling with a lot of help from the court-appointed salmon expert, retired fisheries professor Howard Horton, to make sure it tracks with the "best available science."

Others weren't convinced that was the case, since the judge's own court-ordered spill plan didn't comply with the feds' "best available science, " because it keeps more spring chinook and steelhead from being barged, and has resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of returning adult fish since 2006.

The longer they wait, the more they suspected the judge was working on some kind of complicated check-in process for the court to keep track of progress in the salmon recovery effort, mainly to keep habitat restoration work on point, and tally expected benefits to fish. They were afraid that Redden wanted to craft a decision that will keep the court involved and the case open, like the ongoing, secretive U.S. v. Oregon process that governs tribal harvests in the basin.

If Redden took much longer, the 10-year time frame of the supplemental BiOp will be half over before he approves it.

Meanwhile, the Fish Passage Center continued to release new "analyses" that show the benefits of increasing spill for boosting the survival of juvenile spring chinook and steelhead. Their latest effort came out July 14, and suggested the judge's added spill has boosted inriver survival over the BiOp's spill regime.

But the FPC's July 14 analysis left out one important factor--it forgot to measure benefits compared to transported fish. Even the FPC has data that shows if more wild spring chinook had been barged in recent years, more adult fish would have come back. Barged steelhead have returned at twice the rate of inriver migrants (see NW Fishletter 285).

The Save Our Wild Salmon folks, one of the original plaintiff groups, have joined the dispute over wind farms and BPA by telling FERC that the power marketing agency is using the salmon issue as a smoke screen to cut wind production. They said it wouldn't hurt fish if operators simply turned up the spill knob at federal dams, even though involuntary spill levels are already way above state waivers.

The wild salmon advocates point to little evidence of severe signs of gas bubble trauma in juvenile samples. But anyone who was around in the 1990s, when the GBT questions were being debated, knows that independent fish physiologists panned the monitoring proposal before it was finally implemented in the 1990s, and is now administered by the Fish Passage Center.

At the end of June, the western division of the American Fisheries Society released another dam-breaching resolution that was approved by 86 percent of its membership. It's the third time they've weighed in on dam breaching since 2004.

The latest resolution says the Lower Snake dams are a "significant threat" to the continued existence of the Snake salmon, steelhead, lamprey and white sturgeon that are still around. Of course, their recommendations are "based on the best scientific information available."

Just like everybody else's.

The AFS resolution reluctantly acknowledged the "relatively large runs of salmon and steelhead in recent years" and "good flow and ocean conditions," but asserts that "it is prudent to expect a repeat of extended periods of smaller runs, and poor flow and ocean conditions, coupled with gradual warming of water temperatures."

They also raise the specter of delayed mortality continuing to be a factor in the decline of wild Snake runs, "despite recent improvements in ocean productivity, passage and adult returns."

Only problem is, the runs are going up, not down.

The AFS resolution also takes a shot at hydro policy. It claims the four dams produce only 1 percent of regional power needs during high-demand periods--"and in the last 10 years, 11 times their average power production has been added to the regional power supply (about half in natural gas and half in wind)."

"We looked into that and concluded that they were comparing the output of the Snake dams in July and August to that of the entire NW power pool," BPA spokesman Michael Milstein said by e-mail. "Comparing to NW loads alone would give a number closer to 3 percent. However, the full importance of the dams goes far beyond their basic power output. For instance, the dams also provide very important reserve capacity to match loads and respond to spikes in demand, especially in winter when NW power use peaks and when there is more flexibility in dam operations."

A 2010 analysis by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council found that breaching would boost BPA's revenue requirements by $530 million a year, increase regional power-system costs by $4 billion to $7 billion, and lead to higher consumer bills and utility rates.

Without those dams, more natural gas-fired plants would have to be built to provide reliable power, and more power would have to be imported from other gas and coal sources outside the Northwest, with less to be exported. The 3-million-ton increase in CO2 emissions would be a 7.6-percent boost to the carbon-risk scenario, according to the council's report. That's five times more than the amount of carbon saved by the states' renewables portfolio standards used in their modeling effort.

But the AFS western division's press release included the following comment from retired fisheries consultant Don Chapman: "The resolution simply tells it like it is from a science perspective: if we want to save Snake River salmon as habitats warm, we have to remove the four lower Snake dams."

Chapman--hands down the emeritus dean of Northwest fisheries consultants--worked with regional utilities for many years. His company produced the first comprehensive status report on Snake River salmon for PNUCC in 1991. In these pages some years ago, we reported that Chapman had remarked that barging smolts from the Snake had probably saved the remnants of those wild runs.

But a few years ago, spooked by the specter of global warming, Chapman recommended taking out the dams and reducing harvests to save the fish, if other sources could make up the power losses without increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Chapman, now 80, still feels that way. He explained his position in a keynote speech at the annual meeting of the Oregon AFS chapter in Bend last February, which I quote from in transcript. He took on the BiOp, BPA, the Power Council, and the notion that fish are doing better than they were before the lower Snake dams were built.

He said so-called "record" fish runs in recent years, which are mostly hatchery fish anyway, should be measured against wild returns from the 1960s, before hatcheries were cranking out millions of smolts in the Snake River Basin.

And, as he pointed out, those returns to Idaho were the remnants of huge runs that were wiped out by the end of the 1800s. By 1940, inriver harvest rates on summer chinook were above 80 percent. By the early 1960s, harvest rates in the lower Columbia were an arbitrary 50 percent.

So, all in all, the runs were much larger than the baseline figures now used from the 1970s and 1980s.

Chapman took issue with the notion that NMFS has touted for some years now, that improvements in juvenile passage at lower Snake and mainstem Columbia dams have led to overall survival rates past the eight dams similar to survival when only the four mainstem dams were in place.

He attacked an Idaho Statesman letter to the editor penned by Northwest RiverPartners executive director Terry Flores that said fish survival through the lower Snake is higher now than before the dams were built.

It's not a concept he can easily stomach. Chapman cited a 1979 paper on fish survival by NMFS scientist Howard Raymond that estimated juvenile spring chinook survival through the lower Snake in the early 1960s at around 89 percent, when only Ice Harbor Dam was in place.

But NMFS researchers have never been able to duplicate Raymond's results, drawn from freeze-brand survival data when such research was in its infancy. Today, the agency doesn't consider those early results reliable.

"Brief examination of recent smolt survivals gives the lie to the Flores assertion," said Chapman. Unfortunately, his own examination was too brief to be believable.

Chapman estimated adult spring chinook and steelhead numbers would improve about 28 percent to the mouth of the Columbia with the four dams gone, and more spawning habitat for fall chinook would be available with their demise. However, few fall chinook spawned in the lower Snake before the dam were built, and more than 80 percent of their spawning habitat was blocked when the Hells Canyon project was completed. Why doesn't Chapman go after those projects?

It's likely his provocative speech got the AFS membership fired up once again. He derided the Fish Accords and called BPA "corrupt" because it was committed to doling out nearly a billion dollars "in bribes" to most states and tribes to support the salmon plan.

He didn't call his home state of Idaho "corrupt" for joining the Accord parade, however; nor the hundreds of state and tribal biologists who are working on these new projects. But he said he admired the Nez Perce and Spokane tribes and the state of Oregon for their refusal to take part.

"After reading through the Supplemental BiOp, I gave the NMFS scientists a passing grade for effort and detail. But I was most impressed by how much was unknown and the extent of risk. So I gave the conclusory portion an F," said Chapman. "My own conclusions from all that technical work were very different from those of NMFS. I see jeopardy where the BiOp does not."

Chapman recommended that an independent evaluation of dam removal by the National Academy of Sciences be undertaken now, "not when listed wild stocks are in truly desperate straits." He echoed earlier criticism that the biological triggers for breaching studies are set too low.

He neglected to mention that an almost truly independent panel (one NMFS scientist was on board) has already taken a hard look at the latest BiOp and gave it an overall thumbs-up, warming or not.

The scientists who took part included Bob Bilby, current ISAB member and biologist with Weyerhaeuser Co.; Peter Bisson, ISAB member, USFS; Mary Power, biology professor at University of California, Berkeley; Joseph Travis, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Florida State University; Dr. Mary Ruckelshaus, from Seattle's NOAA Science Center; Daniel Simberloff, biology professor, University of Tennessee; Peter Kareiva, chief scientist with The Nature Conservancy; and Nate Mantua, ad hoc ISAB member and associate research professor, Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington.

Kareiva worked for NOAA Fisheries during development of the 2000 BiOp and was responsible for developing a matrix analysis that took a fresh look at salmon survival issues. He successfully countered the results of the contentious PATH process, which tried to evaluate competing passage models by regional scientists. PATH's majority opinion found breaching lower Snake dams a much better recovery strategy than then-current operations.

Kareiva's analysis reduced PATH's estimate of delayed mortality from barged fish and found breaching the dams was barely better than current operations for recovering the Snake River stocks.

Meanwhile, great fish numbers keep piling up, as we have waited for Judge Redden's decision. Another record for ESA-listed fall chinook since the dams went in is expected in the Snake. If the prediction comes true, the return will beat the interim recovery goal of 2,500 fish five or six times over. -B. R.

The following links were mentioned in this story:

NW Fishletter 285

Resolution of the Western Division of the American Fisheries Society on the Role of Dams and Conservation of Snake River Salmon, Steelhead, Pacific Lamprey, and White Sturgeon

Keynote speech

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