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NW Fishletter #327, January 31, 2014
 NOAA Releases Supplemental Hydro BiOp To Satisfy Judge's Concerns
NOAA Fisheries announced Jan. 17 that its newest tweaks to the region's salmon plan will assure that federal dam operations do not jeopardize the existence of ESA-listed salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin. In fact, the agency said some of its actions have already shown more benefit than anticipated.
"This supplemental biological opinion confirms we are on the right track when it comes to ensuring the survival of salmon and steelhead species in the Columbia River system now and well into the future," said Will Stelle, West Coast Regional Administrator for NOAA Fisheries, in a statement. "Lots of hard work and collaboration across the region made this progress possible."
The agency has fleshed out the prior BiOp with more habitat actions, as ordered by now-retired federal judge James Redden in August 2011, who faulted the original salmon plan for not having specific actions for improving habitat beyond 2013. The new supplement contains more actions that focus on tributary and estuary improvements to be completed between 2014 and 2018, when the BiOp ends.
The latest BiOp also calls for beginning the fish barging program earlier, mainly to improve wild steelhead numbers. The added spill in recent years has reduced the number of fish collected for barging, and has likely had an adverse effect on steelhead returns.
The summer spill program will also end earlier in August than in past years. If fewer than 300 smolts show up at Snake River dams for three consecutive days, barging will be terminated. The new BiOp also calls for more action to reduce avian predation, namely by reducing the size of the cormorant colony in the estuary and the tern colonies in the Upper Columbia.
Early criticism of the plan has been mainly conducted through the public comment process, which the agency included in its release of documents Jan. 17. But a group of retired F&W managers sounded off earlier in January with a letter to the Obama administration, criticizing the BiOp for a faulty jeopardy analysis and for using "speculative benefits from poorly defined habitat mitigation actions to make up for the massive harm caused by the dams."
"Despite clear direction from the court to clarify these measures and illustrate how they will indeed result in the unrealistically large increases in survival that the federal agencies predict, the draft plan depends heavily on still more vaguely described habitat actions in the coming years, all of which face the same problems and deficiencies that have plagued previous illegal salmon plans," the letter said.
But the agency says it used the "best available science" throughout the plan, and habitat benefits are estimated with a combination of empirical data and expert opinion. "Given the lack of adequate quantitative data for many populations across the basin," says the new BiOp, "it was not feasible to apply more formal models and quantitative approaches across all populations."
"This updated salmon plan continues on the path of progress seen over the past decade," said Scott Corwin, executive director of the Public Power Council. Corwin noted that not only are salmon passage rates very high at the dams, but more than 10,000 acres of fish habitat are being enhanced and protected, and hundreds of miles of new stream access are now available, leading to some of the largest salmon runs in the past 75 years.
"The region's electric utility ratepayers are funding most of this massive effort, so it is good to see that it is working effectively to meet the fish survival goals," said Corwin.
But some fish advocates and long-time plaintiffs in decades-long litigation over the federal agencies' various plans were not impressed. "Unfortunately, this latest blueprint is virtually indistinguishable from the plan rejected by the district court in 2011," said Save Our Wild Salmon executive director Joseph Bogaard in a press release. "Rather than looking for ways to do more to safeguard imperiled salmon and bring people together, the federal agencies have spent the last two years coming up with new reasons for the same tired conclusions--choosing conflict over collaboration."
"A 17-year study demonstrates that spill is our most effective immediate measure to increase salmon survival across their life-cycle," said Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association executive director Liz Hamilton. "The court-ordered spill in place since 2006 has resulted in more adult fish returning to the Columbia. That's helped salmon businesses and the jobs they support. Meanwhile, NOAA and Bonneville Power Administration seem to be stuck in the 1990s when it comes to spill science. We can understand dam managers' reluctance to share the river water with salmon, but that doesn't excuse their effort to turn back the clock and ignore 17 years of data from the fish."
However, a recent presentation by federal officials suggests that the plaintiffs and their own spill science may be what's stuck in the 1990s (see story 2). Federal agencies told an independent science panel last week that more fish are passing dams through spill now than critics have assessed in their own analysis that calls for a 10-year "test" to boost spill levels at all dams. In fact, the feds say their latest survival data shows that more than 60 percent of the spring chinook and steelhead are passing dams via spillways and surface weirs, the percentage critics say that could increase returning stocks to recovery levels SARs of around 4 percent. -Bill Rudolph
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