Lawsuit Victory Forces EPA To Identify Sources Of Temperature Pollution
A U.S. District Judge in Seattle ordered the EPA on Oct. 17 to identify the sources of high water temperatures in the Columbia and Snake rivers, and take the first steps toward developing a plan to reduce those temperatures to protect fish.
"Because of today's victory, EPA will finally write a comprehensive plan to deal with the dams' impacts on water temperature and salmon survival," Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, said in a news release.
The summary judgment by Chief U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez gives EPA 60 days to comply with his order favoring five conservation and fishing groups that filed a lawsuit against the agency last year. Columbia Riverkeeper et al. v. Scott Pruitt et al. claims the EPA violated the Clean Water Act by failing to issue a TMDL, or Total Maximum Daily Load, for temperatures in the Columbia and lower Snake rivers, and the judge agreed.
The EPA is considering whether to appeal the ruling. In an Oct. 25 motion, acting EPA Director Andrew Wheeler asked the judge to allow an additional 30 days to comply with the court's order "to complete its internal processes for assessing whether or not it will appeal the Court's decision."
If approved, EPA would have until Dec. 17 to take action.
Prompted by the death of some 250,000 sockeye in 2015--when river water temperatures reached lethal levels--the plaintiffs objected to the agency's request for an extension of time in an Oct. 31 reply.
The order applies to the lower Snake River, from its confluence with the Columbia River to Lewiston, Idaho; and in the Columbia River from its mouth to Grand Coulee Dam.
Joining Columbia Riverkeeper in filing the lawsuit were Snake River Waterkeeper, Idaho Rivers United, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Association, and the Institute for Fisheries Resources. They filed the suit about a year and a half after warm water temperatures in the Snake and Columbia rivers left roughly 250,000 adult sockeye dead as they attempted to migrate back upstream.
Miles Johnson, attorney for Columbia Riverkeeper, told NW Fishletter that conditions are only expected to worsen. "With climate change, as we get hotter and hotter, and less water in the system during drought years, it's turning a bad situation into a crisis," he said.
Johnson said the reservoirs created by dams are believed to be the major cause of warmer water in the Columbia and Snake rivers, especially on the lower Snake, and at the John Day and McNary dams on the lower Columbia. "They are big, shallow, slow-moving reservoirs out in a really hot part of Oregon and Washington, and they soak up the sun and become too hot," he said. Washington and Oregon have already set water temperature standards at 68 degrees, which, when exceeded for extended periods, can be harmful to salmon and steelhead.
Johnson said the TMDL is a study that identifies all the causes of warming water temperature in the two rivers, and develops a budget on how much each source will have to reduce temperatures in order to meet the standards. Washington and Oregon will then work to develop specific plans so the rivers can meet the standard for water temperature.
Colleen Keltz, spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Ecology's water quality section, said that once the EPA issues the TMDLs, the state agencies will still need to conduct lengthy studies and monitoring, and work with the public to develop a path forward. That process will have to be approved by the EPA, she said.
Johnson noted that Washington and Oregon had identified water temperature as a problem in the Columbia River Basin in the 1990s, and listed both rivers as impaired by water temperature. Because EPA was at the forefront of modeling and scientific studies needed to develop the TMDL, the responsibility given to states under the Clean Water Act went to the EPA instead. In 2000, the states signed a memorandum of agreement with EPA, which agreed to issue TMDLs for water temperature, while the states retained the TMDLs for total dissolved gas standards.
Martinez pointed to that MOA as a reason for his order, along with subsequent communications between the states and EPA. "[T]he Court concludes that Washington and Oregon have clearly and unambiguously indicated they will not produce a TMDL for these waterways," he wrote. "Whether rightly or wrongly, they placed the ball in the EPA's court, and the subsequent 17-year delay is strong evidence that the states have abandoned any initial step the EPA could possibly be awaiting."
The decision also notes that by 2003, the EPA had issued a draft TMDL for temperature which indicated that, while the responsibility to develop TMDLs generally falls to states, due to the interstate and international nature of waters in the Columbia basin, its relationship with tribal-trust duties, and the expertise required, the EPA agreed to take responsibility. According to the judge's decision, the draft stated that after a 90-day comment period, the agency would issue a final temperature TMDL for the Columbia and Snake rivers, but the final document was never released.
Johnson said that when the EPA found that dams were the major cause, the plan was shelved.
While ruling in favor of plaintiffs, the judge opted not to address their claim that the EPA violated the Administrative Procedure Act by failing to act for more than 17 years. He also declined to set a court-ordered deadline, writing that the court must abide by the timeline in the Clean Water Act, which allows a total of 60 days. According to his ruling, the plaintiffs expressed concern that EPA would delay issuing the TMDL for temperature, but the judge suggested the parties should work together to resolve the issue and avoid further court action.
Johnson said since the lawsuit was filed, the EPA has been working to update the draft TMDL from 2003. "It's not as though they're starting from scratch," he said. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Trump Moves Up Deadline For Dam Removal Analysis To 2020
Editor's Note: An original version of this story included an incorrect name for the Council on Environmental Quality. The error has been corrected.
President Donald Trump got involved in Columbia Basin dam issues on Oct. 19, issuing a memorandum that will speed up the schedule for a new court-mandated environmental impact statement (EIS) and biological opinion on the Federal Columbia River Power System by one year.
The Presidential Memorandum on Promoting the Reliable Supply and Delivery of Water in the West includes a section for "streamlining Western water infrastructure regulatory processes and removing unnecessary burdens."
That section directs federal action agencies to develop a new schedule for completing the Columbia River System Operations environmental impact statement, moving up a deadline to finish the biological opinion from 2021 to 2020. Required by a U.S. District Court judge in 2016, the new biological opinion and EIS will include a range of options for operating 14 federal projects on the Columbia and Snake rivers, and will include an alternative analyzing the impacts of removing four lower Snake River dams.
Washington Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse applauded the action, while reactions from groups closely involved with the issue were mixed.
They touted the memo as a clear win for Columbia and Snake river hydropower.
"Dams and fish coexist, and after more than two decades in the courtroom, we should let scientists, not judges, manage our river systems and get to work to further improve fish recovery efforts," McMorris Rodgers said in a news release. "Today, I'm encouraged by President Trump's action, which also meets those goals," she said.
Newhouse added, "While the Senate fails to act on our House-passed legislation to restore the collaborative framework that operates the Columbia and Snake River Power System, I am grateful to President Trump for speeding up this ongoing process. Moving up the deadline for the EIS is a procedural win that will give more certainty to the communities whose livelihoods depend on effective operations of our dams."
Darryll Olsen, board representative for the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association, called Trump's action "underwhelming," and said the accelerated schedule will only hasten new court-ordered mandates to take out or draw down Snake River dams.
Joseph Bogaard, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon, said Trump's memorandum is suspiciously political, coming just before the mid-term elections. "I don't think any of us in the region ... see this announcement as something that is designed to move us closer to solutions to the problems we face in the Columbia Basin," he said.
Terry Flores, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, said she thinks the memorandum is a "big deal" as it brings attention to issues related to water allocations and the Endangered Species Act. "It just signals that the administration is really paying attention to some critical issues out West," she said.
Scott Corwin, executive director of the Public Power Council, said time will tell how the executive directive impacts the process. "I think we'll have to see how the federal agencies implement it," he said.
Bonneville Power Administration spokesman David Wilson said his agency is reviewing the memorandum to get a clearer understanding of what it means for Bonneville, BuRec and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Under the current schedule, these federal agencies will issue a draft EIS by March 27, 2020, with a final EIS to follow by March 26, 2021, and a record of decision by Sept. 24, 2021.The federal action agencies have 60 days to come up with a new schedule for completing the EIS a year early.
Olsen said he's not sure that when it comes to issues in the Columbia Basin, the certainty to be handed down by federal judges will benefit irrigators or hydroelectric proponents. He said he believes the new EIS process will only confirm for Oregon's U.S. District Judge Michael Simon that dam breaching or deep drawdowns on the lower Snake River dams are justified to improve fish runs.
CSRIA is an intervenor-defendant in the 25-year-old lawsuit National Wildlife Federation et al. v. National Marine Fisheries Service, and has been lobbying federal agencies for an Endangered Species Act (ESA) exemption in an effort to exempt the dams from the Act's requirements and end the decades-long lawsuit.
Trump's action, he said, may only speed up Simon's decision over whether Snake River dams should be removed. Olsen also said he doesn't see how completing the process in 2020--while Trump is still president--will help those who depend on the dams. "I'm not sure they fully appreciate that the administration is not making this decision. It's the federal judiciary," Olsen said.
He added that instead of hastening the process, the agencies should be invoking existing ESA exemption statutes--known as the God Squad provision--to end the lawsuit by making the FCRPS exempt from threatened and endangered species listings.
To Bogaard, the memo was purely political--aimed at electing a handful of Republican lawmakers in the West. "The announcement seems more timed to impact politics than to impact policy," he said.
According to an article in The Sacramento Bee, Trump announced his memorandum on a campaign swing through Arizona, surrounded by five Republican congressmen from California's Central Valley. He promised to bring more water to California farmers impacted by environmental regulations related to salmon, which drew sharp criticism from California officials and environmental groups. McMorris Rodgers and Newhouse are also seeking re-election next month.
Bogaard said the announcement also appears to be an effort to boost the midterm campaigns of McMorris Rodgers and Newhouse, who passed legislation in the House to stall the EIS process, but which failed to progress through the Senate. "Whether it does, it's hard to tell," he said.
As far as the impacts, Bogaard agreed with Olsen that memorandum will apparently accelerate a new biological opinion and EIS, which could be good for endangered or threatened fish. "This doesn't seem like a game-changer," Bogaard said. However, he added, it also doesn't help resolve the issue. "This is dividing people and moving us away from solutions. And that's unfortunate for everyone," he said.
As a proponent of hydropower, Flores said the memo shows Trump is paying attention to the region. "These are big issues in the West--water supply and endangered species. I think it's a big deal. It just shows the administration really cares about these issues and recognizes they're complex, and it's important for the agencies to be coordinated," she said. The accelerated process also means a final EIS will be issued during this administration.
"They're going to be looking very carefully at the dam removal analysis," she said, which is important because the Trump Administration has identified the federal hydroelectric system as critical infrastructure. She noted that the president's directive will be challenging for the federal action agencies that now must figure out how to accelerate the EIS process.
Corwin said it's still unclear how the agencies will do that, but the president's memo requires them to stay focused on a completion schedule, which could be helpful. Also, bringing the federal Council on Environmental Quality into the picture could also be useful, he said. "In general, we'll have to see how it's implemented," he said. "But it's good to have a focus on sticking to a timeline, and to have someone monitoring it."
The memo also directs the secretaries of the Interior and Commerce departments to streamline regulatory processes and develop a timeline for completing the requirements for major water projects, expedite ongoing environmental reviews and consider the views of local operators during hydroelectric relicensing proceedings.
It includes deadlines for specific actions to be taken by secretaries of the Interior, Commerce, Energy and the Army, and the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality. It impacts the Columbia River System Operations as well as the Klamath Irrigation Project in Oregon, and the Central Valley Project and the California State Water Project in California.
For the Klamath Irrigation Project--also known as the Klamath Reclamation Project--the memo requires a joint consultation, now underway separately by the secretaries of Interior and Commerce, to be completed by August 2019. -K.C. Mehaffey
 DNA Shows Northern Pike Likely Planted Above Lake Roosevelt
Some northern pike populations in the Pacific Northwest have spread naturally, getting flushed downstream during high flows, or migrating upstream to populate new areas. But others--including the one that most threatens salmon in the Columbia River Basin--were illegally transported there by people.
Those are the conclusions of environmental DNA work being conducted by Kellie Carim, aquatic research biologist at the National Genomics Center for Wildlife and Fish Conservation in Missoula, Mont.
Carim presented her work to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's Fish and Wildlife Committee on Oct. 9. It was one of three presentations related to salmon predators in the Columbia River Basin, with a focus on northern pike.
Using genetic tests to trace the most likely parentage, Carim determined that the 104 northern pike sampled from the Pend Oreille River, Box Canyon Reservoir and Lake Roosevelt did not likely spread there from upstream locations. Instead, the northern pike in these three areas were most closely related to pike found in Idaho's Medicine and Cave lakes.
If pike are drifting downstream, she said, they would be most closely related to the nearest neighboring populations--from Lake Pend Oreille and the Clark Fork River--and these were not.
Additionally, Carim said, the pike now threatening salmon in the Columbia River Basin appear to have links to other sources, further suggesting human transport from other locations.
The finding is both good news and bad news, she said. Good news because, while northern pike are spreading on their own, they aren't spreading as rapidly as would be the case if all the populations were related and spreading naturally. "It's not a steady stream of fish coming into these areas," Carim told the committee. "These fish are moving slowly. We have time to make a strong, concerted effort" to eradicate them.
The bad news is that people continue to distribute this sport fish into new areas, presumably in an attempt to establish new sport fishing opportunities. And, they're planting them in new locations even though the pike in Lake Roosevelt--the reservoir above Grand Coulee Dam--and in areas upstream are basically inedible due to high levels of toxins. In the Pend Oreille River, the Washington Department of Health has issued a fish consumption advisory, recommending no consumption of northern pike larger than 24 inches, and no more than two meals per month of fish smaller than 24 inches.
When asked, Carim suggested, "We're going to have to put a lot of emphasis on informing people" about the detrimental impacts of moving northern pike to new locations. "To prevent it from happening again, we're going to have to put some effort there."
Northern pike were first discovered west of the Continental Divide in 1953, after they were transported by people from Sherburne Lake in East Glacier, Mont., to the Lone Pine Reservoir in western Montana, Carim said.
From there, they spread to the Clark Fork, Flathead and Bitterroot river systems. Carim said there was a "human assist" in their continued spread into the Coeur d'Alene River, where, by the late 1970s, they spread farther downstream.
Their distribution didn't change much until 1997, when pike emerged in Lake Pend Oreille, she said. "It's believed a large flooding event flushed them downstream from western Montana into Lake Pend Oreille." Then, in 2004, they showed up in the Pend Oreille River, and moved into the Columbia River in Canada, and later into Lake Roosevelt.
Carim said northern pike are voracious eaters, and prey on other fish weighing up to 75 percent of their own body weight. "They could eat any one of our native fish out there," she said, adding. "The fear is that they're going to get out beyond Grand Coulee Dam and start impacting our native salmonids."
So far, fishery managers have had some success keeping this predator in check.
In a presentation to the full Council, Joe Maroney, director of fisheries and water resources for the Kalispel Tribe of Indians, discussed their efforts to control the predatory fish. Their goals, he said, were to minimize the pike's impact to native species, to reduce their spread to other waters including the Columbia River, and to reduce their numbers in Box Canyon Reservoir.
Maroney said when northern pike were first detected in Box Canyon in 2005, they were listed both as a prohibited species and as a game fish. The tribe successfully petitioned the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to remove them as a game fish, and keep them only as a prohibited species so it could attempt to eradicate them, he said.
After years of studies and surveys, the tribe initiated a full suppression effort in Box Canyon Reservoir in 2012, followed by a full suppression effort in Boundary Reservoir in 2017.
In Box Canyon, the tribe has set nearly 5,000 gillnets, and has reduced the number of pike captured from nearly 7,000 in 2013 to just 32 fish in 2017, Maroney said. He said the number jumped to just over 200 fish this year, but he believes that was due to a successful spawning and hopes that number will drop again next year. To date, the tribe has removed nearly 17,500 northern pike from the reservoir, weighing a total of 42,000 pounds. Suppression efforts in Boundary Reservoir have resulted in a notable reduction in total catch, dropping from 308 pike in 2017, to 121 pike this year.
He said it's too soon to know if pike will ever be fully eradicated from these two reservoirs, but the effort involved each year is reduced when fish numbers are reduced. At its peak, the tribe spent roughly two and a half months each year catching pike. Now, it takes just two and a half weeks, which significantly reduces their costs.
Maroney noted that northern pike are considered the top priority in Washington state for aquatic established species needing control or eradication. The Western Governors' Association has ranked them as seventh among all 17 Western states stretching from Texas to Alaska and Hawaii.
He told the Council, "Time is of the essence on this. One of the lessons learned is, if you find them, remove them. You don't need to study it to death."
Council members agreed. "It points out we ought to be spending an awful lot of time trying to convince fishermen not to transport them," Council member Bill Booth commented. Member Tom Karier added that he'd like more information about penalties for transporting non-native fish to new bodies of water. "It may be a small effort, but it costs millions of dollars and the penalties should be commensurate."
The Council also heard from biologists and managers at Chelan, Douglas and Grant county PUDs about their efforts to reduce other salmon predators, especially the unrelated pikeminnow.
As for northern pike, all three mid-Columbia PUDs are monitoring their areas to ensure early detection should the predator begin to inhabit their reservoirs.
These efforts include the use of environmental DNA sampling, or eDNA, which analyzes samples of water to determine if a species is present.
Some are also supporting suppression efforts upstream, and are involved in regional forums to remain updated on progress to eradicate them. -K.C. Mehaffey
 From Anchovies To Zooplankton: Impacts Of North Pacific 'Warm Blob' Linger
Imagine eating jellyfish instead of shrimp. Anchovies can. So can sardines and smelt.
That's what they were apparently forced to do a few years ago, when the Pacific Ocean warmed beyond anything scientists had seen before, and the preferred foods of these forage fish became scarce.
Their feeding situation is also a window into the conditions that young Columbia River salmon faced as they tried to make the major, energy-intensive transition from fresh water to salt water from 2014 through 2016.
A recent study found that, in the midst of that oceanic heat wave known as the Warm Blob, forage fish ate far more gelatinous zooplankton (like tiny jellyfish) and far fewer euphausiids (such as krill), decapods (such as shrimp and crabs) and copepods (tiny crustaceans that feed directly on phytoplankton cells) than they did in years when the ocean's surface temperature was cool, or even average.
The study, published in Marine Ecology Progress Series, is yet another indication of the far-ranging impacts of the anomalous Blob. A high pressure system that stalled over the North Pacific in 2014 and 2015, the Blob was followed by a strong El Niño in 2016, causing warm ocean-water conditions that lasted longer, spread farther and went deeper than previously recorded in the Pacific.
Although conditions in the North Pacific are starting to return to normal, poor salmon runs continue to plague the region. Last month, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife took the rare step of closing most of the Columbia River to salmon fishing. An agency official said the closure is at least partly due to poor ocean conditions in 2015, and noted that Chinook runs ranging from California to Alaska are depressed.
On Sept. 25, the U.S. Commerce secretary declared a commercial fishery disaster for salmon between 2015 and 2017, and will distribute $20 million to commercial fisheries in Washington, Oregon and California.
The study looked at several species of forage fish and the contents of their bellies in 2015 and 2016--at the height of the Warm Blob--and compared those to their diets in 2011 and 2012, which had cooler-than-average ocean conditions; and to 2000 and 2002, which were average. Forage fish included northern anchovy, Pacific sardine, surf smelt, whitebait smelt, Pacific herring and jack mackerel.
Scientists found that forage fish ate much greater quantities of gelatinous material during the warm years, and also determined that in general, the forage fish were smaller and weighed significantly less than those in average or cold-water years.
"We were seeing much skinnier fish than we have in the past," said Richard Brodeur, lead author of the study and a research fisheries biologist with NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center based in Newport, Ore.
According to the study, "Forage fish play a central role in the transfer of energy from lower to higher trophic levels." And, it surmises, "Although gelatinous zooplankton are generally not believed to be suitable prey for most fishes due to their low energy content, some forage fishes may utilize this prey in the absence of more preferred prey resources during anomalously warm ocean condition."
The impact of these findings on salmon is twofold, said Bill Tweit, Columbia River fishery coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. "First, if you look at when juvenile Chinook and steelhead swim into the ocean, they're about the same size as forage fish. Essentially, they are forage fish," Tweit said.
So, he continued, if anchovies and smelt were having difficulties finding krill or other energy-packed foods during the Blob, so were salmon. That means their first year in the ocean, when salmon were already stressed from the journey downstream and the change to a marine environment, they weren't getting high-calorie foods to help them survive the transition, he explained.
"Secondly, as they grow into predators of forage fish the next year, there are still forage fish to eat, but those have a lower caloric content," Tweit said. So again, the salmon that survived the first blow were hit with another during their second and perhaps their third and fourth years in the ocean.
Tweit noted that some salmon--when the northern California Current ecosystem is not productive--are able to escape some of the hazards of poor ocean conditions by traveling north, to Alaska. "Unfortunately, this time, in addition to the California Current ecosystem, the Gulf of Alaska was equally or maybe more affected," he said.
The study hypothesizes that the warming altered the prey available to forage fish, which led to the change in their diets. That premise corresponds to what's known about the availability of prey from plankton and trawl sampling in 2015 and 2016, which found several order-of-magnitude decreases in euphausiid abundances--or krill--and a marked increase in salps, pyrosomes and other gelatinous organisms in 2015 and 2016.
Pyrosomes are colonial gelatinous plankton previously considered to be tropical or subtropical. They first started appearing in the northern Pacific off the coast of Washington and Oregon in 2014, and by the summer of 2017, appeared in unprecedented numbers along the entire West Coast, reaching the western Gulf of Alaska, according to a recent article in Ecology. The article concludes that pyrosomes could become more permanent residents of the northern Pacific, with "the potential to restructure energy flows."
Brodeur said pyrosomes are not the gelatinous material found in the stomachs of forage fish in his study, although some new data is showing that juvenile salmon, and even adult salmon, are eating these low-energy pyrosomes.
Brodeur also co-authored a study published in Marine Ecology Progress Series in February 2017, demonstrating the Warm Blob's impact on Chinook salmon, noting that high percentages had empty stomachs in 2015, with fish weighing 17.6 percent less than the same length fish in a cold-water year.
In the recent forage fish study, the authors note, "Although gelatinous material was detected in the stomachs of all forage species except jack mackerel and whitebait smelt during the earlier average years, and to a lesser extent, in the cool years, the levels of occurrence increased dramatically in 2015 and 2016. In fact, we detected at least some gelatinous material in all of the Pacific sardine, whitebait and surf smelt examined in 2016."
Brodeur said although scientists have studied the diets of both forage fish and salmon and know what they like to eat, there's much left to discover about the links between different levels of the food web, and how changes in one part of the food web may affect another.
He said while populations of krill appear to be recovering after the Warm Blob, pyrosomes--which only appeared in northern Pacific waters in 2014--are continuing to flourish. "They're a tropical species," he said. "They shouldn't be here, but they may be established permanently in our waters."
Tweit said that it makes sense to him that the ocean hasn't snapped back to normal or pre-Blob conditions. "That was a tremendous amount of thermal energy, and that thermal energy doesn't just wander away. It's gone somewhere. Just because we're not seeing it at or near the surface doesn't mean it's not there," he said. "We still don't truly understand how that much thermal energy got concentrated."
And because Chinook spend two to four years in the ocean before making their long journey home to spawn, they are among the most impacted by this long-lasting maritime warming. Tweit said he doesn't have much hope Chinook stocks will come back next year.
"We're concerned about next year," he said. "We've looked at the jack counts for summer Chinook already, and they look very poor--as poor as we've seen in a long time. We haven't gotten a read out on fall Chinook, but we're not expecting any dramatic turnaround."
Tweit's concern extends farther than the Columbia River Basin. He said poor Chinook runs are being seen from the Yukon River in Alaska to the Sacramento River in California, and most rivers in between.
"That's unusual," he noted. "Usually, when they're doing poorly in one, they're doing well in another. I've never seen a situation like this, where Chinook have been in this much trouble throughout their entire range." -K.C. Mehaffey
 Dam Removal Issue Still Undecided As Orca Task Force Moves Forward
A task force that has worked since March to develop recommendations on how best to save endangered southern resident killer whales is close to completing its first report for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee by Nov. 16. When it meets on Nov. 6, the question of whether to include a recommendation about removing the four lower Snake River dams remains.
Pressure to remove the dams started heating up this summer, when the orcas captured headlines across the world after a mother whale lost her newborn, and then kept its body afloat for more than two weeks in what was interpreted as a display of mourning. Then, a three-year-old whale from the same pod became sick and disappeared, leaving just 74 whales in a group that has not had a successful birth in three years.
After full-day meetings on Oct. 17 and 18, the Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force released its draft recommendations on Oct. 24. Its 49 members reached consensus on most of the 36 proposed recommendations, initially developed by three working groups and refined during the October meetings. But a few issues were left for further discussion, including draft "Recommendation 9: Determine whether removal of Lower Snake River Dams would provide benefits to Southern Resident orcas commensurate with the associated costs, and implementation considerations." If adopted, that recommendation would ask the governor to work with the states of Idaho and Oregon and "act quickly" to hire a neutral third party and establish a stakeholder process to address issues associated with the possible removal of the dams.
Proponents of dam removal have been calling for more drastic and immediate measures. Potential recommendations that didn't make it into the task force's draft included advocating that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers unilaterally make a decision to stop operating the lower Snake River dams and seek authority to breach them, and recommending that the governor pass an executive order in favor of removing the dams.
Meanwhile, requests to immediately take out the dams flooded the task force's request for feedback on the potential recommendations, most of them asking the task force to "Breach the lower four Snake River dams in 2018!" The sentiment was included in 36.7 percent of the 994 comments on hydropower actions, while 118 commenters, or 11.9 percent, asked the task force not to breach the Snake River dams.
The push to remove the dams came, too, from environmental groups, which released to media a letter to the task force signed by six regional killer whale researchers stating that, while orcas depend on many stocks of Chinook, removing the Snake River dams would provide access to more than 5,000 miles of upstream habitat and offers the best potential for large-scale spring Chinook restoration in the region. The scientists state in the letter that they do not specialize in fisheries biology, but know from studying whales that increasing the abundance of spring, summer and fall Chinook is vital to the whale's recovery. Calling habitat in the Snake River an "essential piece" of that recovery, they concluded, "Indeed, we believe that Southern Resident orca survival and recovery may be impossible to achieve without it."
Release of the letter two days before the task force's October meeting prompted several news headlines, including one in the Seattle Times proclaiming, "Orca survival may be impossible without Lower Snake River dam removal, scientists say."
Potential recommendations were first developed by three working groups, selected to address the orcas' main impediments to survival--a lack of prey, vessel traffic and noise, and contaminants.
The working group on prey availability could not agree about whether to support breaching the dams, and instead hosted a webinar and offered two alternative recommendations to either support the Columbia River System Operations EIS process which will examine removing the dams, or hire an independent group to study the issue.
In addition to participating in the task force's webinar, the Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held a press conference to "set the record straight" on issues related to removing the four Snake River dams. It was held the day before a rally in Portland that called for dam removal, which was promoted with an online survey on the issue that gathered more than 500,000 signatures.
In the Oct. 4 press conference, federal agencies countered nearly every reason for supporting the dams' removal given by proponents. Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) spokesman Scott Simms said in an effort not to influence an ongoing process to develop an environmental impact statement for the Columbia River System Operations, Bonneville and the Army Corps had largely remained silent during much of the debate. The EIS will include an evaluation of removing the dams as one of its alternatives.
Federal officials said one of the biggest misconceptions is that the lack of Chinook from the Snake River is a key or primary factor in the orca's decline. The petition claims, "More than 50% of their diet comes from salmon produced in the Columbia Basin, half of which were produced in the Snake River System." It also concludes, "NOTHING else, not more spill across the dams, not more hatchery fish, not less boat traffic, not more studies and a new EIS can achieve this in time to save wild salmon or Southern Resident Orcas."
Kristen Jule, BPA's fish and wildlife policy planning manager, said there are more Snake River Chinook now than there were in the 1960s, before the lower Snake River dams were built. One of the three pods that make up the southern resident population--the same one to lose a newborn and three-year-old--doesn't even travel to the mouth of the Columbia to feed on Chinook.
Jule noted that all three pods primarily rely on 15 different Chinook runs, only two of them from the Snake River. And unlike many of the other Chinook runs they rely on, trends for the two Snake River populations have been increasing, and right now are their most consistent resource. "I think they are relevant stocks for the southern resident killer whales," she said, but added, "They are not the key limiting factor."
Army Corps biologist Tim Dykstra added, "Removal or breach of the Snake River dams, at best, can provide an incremental benefit to two of those 15 stocks."
Another misconception suggested by groups pushing to remove the dams is that the four lower Snake River dams are being operated at a loss, and offer only low value surplus energy. Kieran Connelly, VP of generation and asset management, said the four dams generate about 1,000 aMW per year--roughly the same amount that Seattle City Light uses over the course of a year. Costing between $10 and $14 per MW hour--including expenses and capital--it's among the most affordable electricity in the Pacific Northwest, he said.
Connelly noted that as the Pacific Northwest increases its reliance on non-carbon sources of power like wind and solar, the dams play an important role in reliability, providing clean power when those sources are unavailable. The Snake River dams, also help to support the nation's largest Fish and Wildlife Program, he said.
Finally, dam-removal proponents contend that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has the authority to remove the Snake River dams, and the process will be relatively fast and inexpensive.
The petition says, "The Corps of Engineers can implement breaching the dams now by using the existing 2002 EIS's 'Breach Alternative Four.' It also claims, "The first two dams can be breached for the cost of another EIS estimated at $80 million; 5 years to completion," and "Congressional Legislation or new appropriations are not needed to start breaching the Snake river dams this year!"
Not true, said Beth Coffey, the Corps' chief of civil works. "Breaching will require Congressional authorization," she said. "The Corps has consistently said we would need authorization. We do not have any standing authority to eliminate a project that Congress has authorized."
Coffey said the 2002 EIS did include an alternative to breach the dams, but since it was not selected as the recommended alternative, the Corps cannot now choose that as their preferred alternative without additional National Environmental Policy Act analysis. Even if it had been selected as the preferred alternative, she said, it would have required Congressional approval and funding. Neither was sought at the time, she noted.
In 2002, the environmental impact statement estimated that breaching the dams would cost about $900 million, and today's dollars would put the price tag at over $2 billion, she said. Those costs would have to be reconsidered in a new analysis as well.
Dykstra added that the 2002 EIS selected an aggressive non-breach alternative which led to significant actions to retrofit the system and overhaul how salmon, particularly juveniles, migrate through these dams. "That has been implemented, and based on some of the adult returns, the trend over time would indicate there has been success,"
NOAA Fisheries did not participate in the press briefing, but did issue a new fact sheet with the latest research on threats to orcas, stating, in part, that the Columbia and Snake rivers produce most of the wild and hatchery Chinook salmon on the West Coast; that an independent scientific panel concluded the Columbia Basin may now produce more juvenile salmon than they did prior to dams and development; and that Puget Sound Chinook are just as important to orcas, but much more at risk due to degraded habitat.
Breaching dams, it notes, is a long-term proposition that would take congressional authorization and "several generations of salmon, at least, before any results could become clear."
"We must address all of the threats to Southern Residents, because plentiful salmon will provide less help to the whales if they carry toxic contaminants, or if ship noise drowns out the echolocation the whales use to track salmon prey," NOAA's publication says.
Meanwhile, Save Our Wild Salmon--which advocates removing the dams as a key measure that would help both orcas and salmon--countered with its own fact sheet, stating that NOAA Fisheries' own study found 7 of the top 15 priority Chinook stocks for southern residents come from the Columbia Basin, including two especially critical stocks from the Snake River. "NOAA satellite tag data shows that Southern Resident killer whales hunt and depend on Snake River Chinook salmon during the winter and spring months, which are an especially critical time of year for the orcas," the fact sheet states.
It also says that the Snake River once averaged annual production of 650,000 wild adult spring Chinook, whereas currently, this stock of combined hatchery and wild Chinook returns has been less than 50,000 fish.
Their fact sheet also countered BPA's statement during the press conference that the trend of declining southern resident killer whales doesn't track with the trends of Snake River Chinook abundance. "Southern Resident killer whale mortality is directly correlated with coastwide Chinook abundance, not any one particular salmon run. What orca scientist agree on is that orcas are starving and that they need more Chinook salmon available--throughout the year--in key foraging areas and at the time when they are foraging there," their response says.
Whether any recommendation that includes Snake River dam breaching makes the task force's final cut has yet to be seen. But may of the other draft recommendations could impact hydropower have made it into the draft report.
One is, "Recommendation 8: Increase spill to benefit Chinook for Southern Residents by adjusting Total Dissolved Gas allowances at the Snake and Columbia River dams." That recommendation would direct the state Department of Ecology to increase dissolved gas allowances from 115 percent up to 125 percent to allow the use of best available science to determine spill levels over the dams to benefit Chinook and other salmonids, coordinating with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, and monitoring the impacts to ensure changes in spill do not negatively affect salmon or other species.
Also in the draft is, "Recommendation 7: Prepare an implementation strategy to re-establish salmon runs above existing dams, increasing prey availability for Southern Resident orcas." The dams mentioned include Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee on the Columbia River, and the Tacoma Diversion, Howard Hanson and Mud Mountain dams in the Puget Sound.
The draft also recommends increasing hatchery production consistent with sustainable fisheries, stock management and the Endangered Species Act; adjusting game fish regulations to encourage removal of non-native predatory fish including walleye and bass; and supporting more effective management of sea lions and other pennies in the Columbia River. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Yakama Nation Takes Next Step In Mid-Columbia Coho Reintroduction
There are no rulebooks when it comes to rebuilding anadromous fish runs that have stopped returning to rivers and streams where they once flourished. So when the Yakama Nation decided more than 20 years ago to reintroduce coho to a few tributaries in the mid-Columbia River, there were a lot of questions.
Now, after two decades of work, adaptive management, careful planning and scientific approvals, along with major commitments for funding, the tribe is ready to take a major step toward its final goal--a sustainable population of naturally returning coho in the Methow and Wenatchee river basins.
A program that began with releasing a small number of hatchery-raised coho from the lower Columbia River in 1996 is now on target to send out 2 million smolts from parents that returned to the mid-Columbia on their own, and to acclimate them in several local rivers and streams before releasing them next spring.
The program began with funds from the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), and over the past decade received additional support from the Chelan, Douglas and Grant county PUDs.
Cory Kamphaus, the Yakama's northern ceded area production supervisor for the coho program, said the tribe's reintroduction strategy has largely used the process of adaptation, and relied on existing facilities. Using a nearby coho stock from the lower Columbia River, the program began rebuilding a run by releasing the hatchery-raised juveniles in Methow and Wenatchee river basins, and then integrating progeny of the adults that made it back.
"While we started with lower river coho, we're five generations removed from that stock," he said. "These are a locally-returning brood. We have completely eliminated the use of lower stock for our program. And we're showing a continual divergence from that founding stock."
According to the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, in the 1900s, between 120,000 and 165,000 coho returned to the upper and mid-Columbia River every year, spawning in the Yakima, Wenatchee, Entiat, Methow and Spokane river watersheds.
These returns included about 30,000 coho that returned to the Methow River basin, making it the most populous anadromous fish in that watershed. But several factors--impassable dams, overfishing, unscreened irrigation diversions, degraded habitat and hatchery policies--eliminated them from these watersheds.
Kamphaus said the first few years after releasing hatchery coho in the Methow River, beginning in 1996, didn't appear to be very successful. "The adults weren't returning at very high rates," he said. "They weren't adapted to their new release environment, and they also had all these hydro facilities to pass through," and a much longer journey compared to their usual return to the lower Columbia River.
In 1999, while continuing a small release program in the Methow Valley, the tribe decided to shift its emphasis to the Wenatchee River basin, which removed two dams and significant distance from their migration. For the next few years, they released juvenile coho from the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery, hoping to reprogram them to imprint on the Wenatchee. And within a few years, the coho began returning at high enough rates to develop a local broodstock. "That was the take-off point," Kamphaus said.
It's also when the real work began. Guided by the Mid-Columbia Technical Work Group, and through a series of evaluations by the Independent Scientific Review Panel, the tribe was able to demonstrate that their program was feasible.
This included showing that despite the use of a hatchery fish that return to a hatchery near Bonneville Dam in the lower Columbia River, over time the coho that did return would produce offspring adapted to the new conditions. These new conditions include a much longer journey to their spawning grounds, and the ability to produce naturally raised progeny.
This feasibility phase addressed three main uncertainties--whether returning coho, which are not listed under the Endangered Species Act, would interact with ESA-listed species that also spawned in the Methow and Wenatchee basins; whether coho would reproduce naturally; and whether a local broodstock could be developed from lower Columbia River stocks.
After developing a master plan and responding to ISRP concerns, the panel found last October that the project meets scientific review criteria.
Kamphaus said after developing local broodstock in nearby hatcheries, the tribe is now ready to shift from a predominately hatchery-produced broodstock toward a more naturally spawning coho population in the Methow.
"The emphasis during the Natural Production Implementation Phase of the coho master plan is to move most of the production out to multiple springtime acclimation sites and really redistribute those juveniles so that returning adults seed habitat for them to be successful," he said.
Next spring, in the Methow Valley, a million juvenile fish will be released, and 80 percent of them will be from natural acclimation sites, he said.
In the Wenatchee basin, where the program continues to develop and refine the broodstock toward eventual transition into the upper watershed by targeting preferred habitats, one million juveniles continue to be released yearly, primarily from the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery and from select natural acclimation sites in the upper watershed.
Long-term funding is also coming together.
The BPA has committed to spending $3.3 million each year for both the Yakima basin and mid-Columbia coho reintroduction programs in the extended Columbia Basin Fish Accords, said BPA spokesman David Wilson.
He said Bonneville is providing 60 percent of the mid-Columbia's program needs, and three PUDs will contribute 40 percent of the funding and the use of critical adult trapping and collection sites, and juvenile rearing facilities in both basins.
This year, Grant and Chelan county PUDs each signed new 15-year agreements with the Yakama Nation, with Grant committing to a total of almost $14 million, and Chelan agreeing to spend $9.7 million.
Douglas County PUD is raising 3.7 percent of the coho smolts needed in the Methow River basin. This year, the PUD is raising 37,000 coho at its Wells Hatchery, and has committed to helping with production until its Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license for Wells Dam expires in 2054, said PUD spokeswoman Meaghan Vibbert.
The support from the PUDs helps them fulfill requirements for coho in their FERC licenses.
Alene Underwood, Chelan PUD's fish and wildlife manager, said that although coho had been extirpated from the mid-Columbia region, their FERC license recognized that coho might be reintroduced, and so the PUD committed to "no net impact" from its two projects, Rocky Reach and Rock Island dams. That translates to a combined 91 percent juvenile and adult survival rate, 7 percent in hatchery mitigation, and 2 percent in habitat funding.
Underwood said the agreement with the Yakamas satisfies all of its coho obligations for both projects for the next 15 years.
Both Chelan and Grant noted that the agreements give them, and their ratepayers, long-term certainty for meeting environmental stewardship responsibilities required by their federal licenses.
Grant customers get an added benefit, according to Tom Dresser, the utility's Fish and Wildlife manager.
In an email to NW Fishletter, Dresser noted, "Based on Grant PUD's commitment to fund coho, the Yakama Nation and other state, local and federal agencies that provide oversight agreed to change the required survival-evaluation schedule [the survival studies we have to and/or pay for ourselves] from every five years to every 10 years for each fish species [salmon and steelhead]. That means an estimated $9.8 million in savings for Grant PUD over the 15-year agreement."
Yakama production supervisor Kamphaus said, "I think the 15-year commitment [from PUDs] is a result of the success the program has had. We've been able to show this program is viable."
The tribe's goal, he said, is to see a minimum of 1,500 adult fish returning to spawning grounds in the Methow and Wenatchee river basins. It may sound like a low number, he said, but it takes time to work your way back from zero.
On Oct. 4, when coho were still making their way up the Columbia River toward both the Wenatchee and Methow rivers, Kamphaus said this species continues to amaze him. In a year when forecasting predicted there would only be between 2,000 to 3,000 coho above Rock Island Dam, given poor juvenile survivals and ocean conditions, there were already twice as many returns, and counting. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Some Juvenile Salmon Survived Well, Others Didn't Under New Spill Regime
A preliminary report estimating this spring's juvenile salmonid survival rates in the Columbia River Basin shows that the high runoff conditions supplemented by a court-ordered spill at eight dams on the lower Snake and Columbia rivers doesn't always translate into better survival for young fish.
For Snake River juveniles--many of which travel through all eight dams affected by the spill order--sockeye experienced exceptional survival rates, steelhead came in above average, but spring Chinook survival rates were significantly below the long-term average, especially those originating at a hatchery. That's according to NOAA Fisheries' preliminary survival estimates for the passage of spring-migrating juvenile salmonids through Snake and Columbia river dams and reservoirs.
"One of the key observations is that there was substantially higher spill this year, but there was not a corresponding increase in the survival of yearling Chinook," said NOAA Fisheries spokesman Michael Milstein said, adding "It's unclear why that is."
The estimated survival of both hatchery and wild Chinook migrating through all eight dams under this year's court-ordered spill was 43.2 percent--substantially below the 20-year average of 52.1 percent. The report notes, "Yearling Chinook survival through the hydropower system has been consistently below the mean for the past four years, despite a range of different environmental conditions within these years."
Of these four years, this year's survival rate was second lowest, following the 42.8 percent survival in 2015--a drought year with very low flows.
The poor survival rates seem to be driven mostly by poor survival in the McNary-to-Bonneville reach, Milstein notes. The survival rate through the Snake River dams was on par with the long-term average.
Data for the Bonneville Power Administration-funded juvenile survival study--which has been ongoing since 1993--comes from tracking fish with passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags through the system. The rates of survival are monitored for each hatchery, and from fish captured and tagged at a trapping site on the Snake River near Lewiston, Idaho.
Total survival declines as the fish pass through each project on the river. The study breaks out total survival rates for reaches above the eight dams, for the four lower Snake River dams, and for the four lower Columbia River dams. It also provides larger scale pictures of survival rates for all eight dams from Lower Granite Dam to Bonneville Dam, and from the trap to Bonneville Dam.
Overall, the survival rate for both hatchery and wild spring Chinook traveling all the way from the trap and hatcheries to Bonneville Dam--through all eight projects under a spill order--was 38.1 percent, significantly lower than the long-term average of 48.9 percent.
By reach, spring Chinook survival from the trap to Lower Granite Dam was 88 percent; lower than the long-term average of 93 percent. Their survival rate through the four lower Snake River dams was 73.3 percent, similar to the 20-year average survival rate of 73.8 percent. Survival from McNary's tailrace to Bonneville's tailrace was just 59 percent, much lower than the 20-year average of 69.5 percent.
Wild Chinook fared better than their hatchery cousins, with a total estimated survival from the Snake River trap to the Bonneville tailrace of 50.4 percent, above the long-term average of 44.8 percent.
Milstein said there's evidence that some spring Chinook suffered from gas bubble trauma, but whether that was a big enough factor is still unclear. In general, he said, NOAA Fisheries scientists are more concerned about the impacts of high spill and gas bubble trauma on returning adults because they're exposed to the higher gas levels for a longer period of time.
As for the juveniles, he said, "There are a number of different factors that could be potentially contributing." Bird and aquatic predators can have significant impacts on juvenile survival, depending on where they are and how the fish are exposed to them as they pass through the dams. "Typically with the birds, you see more impact on steelhead than Chinook, so that's a bit of a puzzle as well," he said.
NOAA Fisheries scientists will be compiling more PIT-tag data and conducting more detailed analysis before completing a final report, expected to be released in February. The final report will include a more complete database, which could result in differences of up to 3 or 4 percent in the estimated survival rates, the preliminary memo noted.
The report characterizes this spring's environmental conditions as "a year with average water temperatures, but high flow and very high spill for most of the migration season." The average spill discharge at the Snake River dams during this year's downstream migration was 41,300 cfs, substantially higher than the average of 27,700 cfs over the past 25 years.
Spill as a percentage of flow was also much higher this spring, averaging 37.2 percent compared with the long-term average of 27.2 percent.
Juvenile Snake River steelhead--both hatchery and wild--saw much better survival rates this spring. From the trap to the Bonneville tailrace, about 52.4 percent of the young steelhead survived, compared with a long-term average of 45.6 percent. The improved survival rates held true for all stretches of the Snake and lower Columbia rivers.
And, if estimates are accurate, juvenile Snake River sockeye experienced their third-highest survival rate since 1998, with 64.3 percent survival from Lower Granite Dam to the Bonneville Dam tailrace. The high survival rate comes on the heels of three consecutive years with very low survival. "The Idaho Department of Fish and Game has adjusted their acclimation methods this year in order to address the causes of the low Snake River Sockeye survival from the past three years; their efforts almost certainly contributed to the higher survival estimate this year," the report said.
The travel time for juvenile Chinook and steelhead through the eight dams this spring was short--ranging from about two weeks in early April to a few days in mid-May--continuing the trends from recent years, the report said. The travel times are substantially shorter than the long-term average dating back to 1997.
"Since the institution of court-ordered spill in 2006, and the concurrent installation of surface collectors at four additional federal dams during that period, travel times have decreased on average between Lower Granite and Bonneville dams for steelhead, but the effect is less apparent for Chinook," the report notes. "Differences in travel times for low-flow years versus other years are not so well pronounced for either species. Day in season is a stronger predictor of travel time for Chinook than either flow or spill," the report noted.
This year's spill operations also impacted the transporting of juvenile salmonids in the Snake River, with higher-than-average proportions of smolts collected for transportation due to the earlier start date and higher collection rates, the report said. "This was due to the combination of spill operations and river conditions experienced by the fish as the passed the collector dams," the report said.
About 45 percent of the Snake River steelhead and spring Chinook salmon were transported this year--transportation rates that haven't been seen since 2008. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Independent Scientists Praise F&W Research, Recommend Improvements
The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and Northwest Power and Conservation Council (NWPCC) should be proud of the scientific research they're funding in the Columbia Basin, which is creating a legacy that will allow policymakers to prioritize funding for the most effective methods to recover salmon runs, according to Independent Scientific Review Panel Chair Steve Schroder.
In an Oct. 9 presentation to the Council, Schroder focused on the importance of the scientific research examined in the panel's project status review of 25 BPA-funded salmon studies. The review also included several suggestions on how to improve fish research in the region.
Schroder told the Council that of the 25 projects reviewed, 10 "were terrific and met all of our criteria. Four of them had been completed. And the 11 others just had some minor things we thought could be improved."
According to an NWPCC article, the review will help inform the Council as it considers recommendations to amend its fish and wildlife program, which was last updated in 2014.
The 25 projects reviewed by the ISRP fell into three categories--fish populations, including their growth, survival or migration and genetic diversity; habitat and its limiting factors; and fish propagation and the effectiveness of hatcheries in supplementing steelhead and spring Chinook runs.
The review notes that long-term studies are necessary, and that "decisions to interrupt, modify or terminate long-term studies must be made very carefully."
The value of incremental information acquired from each additional year of research can be "extremely high, particularly as the frequency of extreme weather events increases," it noted.
The review asked for continued support of NOAA Fisheries' Ocean Survival of Salmonids project, which should provide answers to key management questions, such as the effects of forage fish abundance on salmon survival.
The review also recommends that the Council evaluate salmon predators on an ecosystem-wide scale, expanding research to assess the impacts of fish, bird and mammal predation at all stages of the life cycles of salmon and steelhead.
It recommends support for and advances in genetic research, noting that "it may be time again to examine the potential of using parent-based tagging (PBT) and genetic stock identification (GSI) to identify the origin of salmonids caught in ocean fisheries."
Research should also consider climate change, which is expected to alter conditions in the Columbia Basin, the ISRP review said. "Climate and land use changes may determine where restoration is most beneficial and should be considered in prioritization of investments," the review said.
Many other recommendations were offered, including a comprehensive review of assessments into the reintroduction of anadromous salmon into blocked areas; incorporating monitoring protocols and data from long-term studies into future habitat assessments; improving practices for hatchery supplementation; and improvement in communication with the public and between researchers and decision makers about their research, ranging from peer-reviewed scientific papers to newspaper articles, podcasts and conferences.
In his presentation to the Council, Schroder detailed the importance of just some of the studies examined in the ISRP review. One involved ongoing research into the effectiveness in detecting PIT-tags in juvenile migration, of which only about half are now being detected due to the large number of fish now migrating over dam spillways, where the PIT-tags cannot be detected.
Another involves a genetic study by the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which is working to estimate the arrival time and abundance of Chinook, steelhead, sockeye and coho. Schroder said this information can be used to help determine the potential to reintroduce extirpated populations in specific reaches.
He also said that detailed research into habitat improvements to determine which factors are most effective at improving salmon returns could help policymakers decide how best to use limited restoration funds to prioritize projects.
"You can see that there is a tremendous array, I think, of extremely interesting projects that come out," Schroder told the Council. "And you guys ought to be proud of the fact that you're supporting this work. BPA should be as well, because this work really, in many cases, is the best in the world. And it acts as a guide to many projects in additional research, really, around the world." -K.C. Mehaffey
 BPA Signs Record of Decision On Fish Accords That Commits $448M In Project Spending
The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) has issued its Record of Decision extending the Columbia Basin Fish Accords for four years.
Bryan Mercier, executive manager of BPA's fish and wildlife division, announced the decision at the Oct. 10 Northwest Power and Conservation Council meeting.
The new Accords commit Bonneville to spend a total of $448 million on fish and wildlife projects, in partnership with several tribes and the states of Idaho and Montana.
Mercier said the agreement represents an annual decrease of $3.3 million compared with the 2008 Accords. That decrease helps Bonneville fulfill a goal in its 2018 strategic plan, to keep costs at or below the rate of inflation. Mercier noted that BPA received 14 comments on the proposed extension, many of which were addressed in the ROD.
He said language in the extended Accords demonstrates how they have helped Bonneville build long-term relationships with tribes and states involved, including language that reflects an alignment of goals rather than legal protections. "The off-ramps are clear and more accessible for all parties in these agreements," and the language that allows for greater flexibility," he told the Council.
In later comments, Council Member Richard Devlin said he understands the extension's positive aspects, including a long-term commitment for funding, but was concerned the new Accords may impede feedback to the Council as it works through an amendment process to its Fish and Wildlife Program.
Mercier responded he doesn't believe the new Accords in any way impede the ability to have frank conversations about improving the program. "Just like the [Columbia River System Operations], we want our partners to have unlimited expression of what is happening with the EIS," he said.
And, in answer to a question from Council Member Guy Norman, Mercier said he sees the new Accords as mostly an extension that turns a 10-year agreement into a 14-year agreement, rather than a launching pad for a new 10-year agreement.
However, he added, because BPA has built new relationships and implemented successful fish and wildlife projects by providing long-term funding, he's hopeful that once a new biological opinion for federal dams is issued, new Accords will be reached after 2022.
"As a region, I think we'd be foolish to lose that," he said. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Groups Threaten Lawsuit Over Idaho Steelhead Fishing
Five conservation groups have filed a notice of intent to sue the state of Idaho for opening a fishing season on hatchery steelhead when returns of wild steelhead are "critically low." The groups claim that Washington and Oregon closed their steelhead seasons due to low returns, and are asking Idaho to take immediate action to halt fishing in the Snake River Basin.
The state does not have the proper approval from federal regulators to allow the incidental take of wild steelhead, the groups claim.
On Sept. 3, Idaho issued rules for a steelhead season beginning Oct. 15, allowing anglers to take one hatchery steelhead per day on the Snake and Salmon rivers. The limit was put in place due to poor returns, which, according to a Fish and Game news release, is as low as it's been since 1978. But, "although these returns are poor, enough steelhead are projected to make it back to our hatchery traps to allow some harvest opportunities," the release says. The limit was extended until Dec. 31 in order to reduce harvest on hatchery steelhead and protect wild steelhead, it says.
Groups intending to sue the state are The Conservation Angler, Idaho Rivers United, Wild Fish Conservancy, Snake River Waterkeeper, and Friends of the Clearwater. Their letter was addressed to Idaho Fish and Game officials, its commissioners and Idaho Gov. Butch Otter.
"One of the main limiting factors in the recovery of Snake River Basin steelhead is harvest, particularly of the B-Index steelhead," the letter states, referring to the B-run steelhead that are generally larger after remaining in the ocean for two years. The groups claim anglers fishing for hatchery steelhead sometimes kill, wound or injure natural-origin steelhead when catching and releasing them. It says that IDFG estimated that 26,816 natural-origin steelhead entered Idaho in the 2014-2015 run, and 16,062 were captured and released during that fishing season. The agency estimated that 2.99 percent of those fish, or 803, died from the catch-and-release activities, according to the letter.
It also says the Idaho steelhead fishery does not currently have an approved Fishery Management and Evaluation Plan covering the incidental take of wild Snake River steelhead, or any other authorization for the steelhead, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1997. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Idaho Power, EPA Seek to Resolve Water Temperature Issue
Idaho Power and the EPA have asked a federal court to delay all proceedings in Idaho Power Company v. United States Environmental Protection Agency et al. to provide time for the agency to "take certain steps toward resolving the issues in this litigation."
The company claims EPA failed to either approve or disapprove a water temperature standard in a section of the Snake River that was submitted by the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.
According to the lawsuit, the state asked the EPA in 2012 to change the water temperature standard below Hells Canyon Dam, as required under the Clean Water Act. The federal agency's failure to act has complicated Idaho Power's application for a new 50-year license to operate the three projects in the Hells Canyon Complex.
Idaho Power says the new standard, which would allow a 2.7-degree increase in maximum water temperature from Oct. 23 to Nov. 7, is within Clean Water Act standards and fully protects Snake River fall Chinook.
According to the joint request, EPA has not responded to Idaho Power's complaint, and after further court filings, the agency's answer is due by Nov. 12. The court also issued other deadlines in the case.
The joint filing notes that discussions between Idaho Power and EPA since the complaint was filed about expected EPA actions "may moot the issues in this litigation."
It says that EPA is consulting with other federal agencies, and anticipates that a biological evaluation will continue throughout the winter, and expects to either take action on the water quality standard submitted by the Idaho DEQ, or submit a relevant standard by March 1, 2019.
If EPA has not taken action by March 11, 2019, the parties agree the stay should end, and the agency will respond to Idaho Power's complaint by March 30, 2019, the filing says.
If EPA requests formal consultation with other agencies, both parties will seek a joint motion to continue the stay. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Beaver Restoration Helps Salmon Habitat, Council Panel Told
A decade-long project to restore beavers in parts of the upper Columbia River Basin is also helping restore salmon habitat, project leaders told the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's Fish and Wildlife Committee Oct. 9.
Cody Gillin, project manager for Trout Unlimited, and Julie Nelson, education and outreach coordinator for the Methow Beaver Project, said beavers create natural pools and side channels, add water storage and woody debris, and cool water temperatures in areas where they've been reintroduced over the past decade (the water cooling is due to increased groundwater storage that returns colder water to the streams).
Ten years after the Methow Beaver Project began trapping nuisance beavers and moving them to higher elevations on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, federal scientists released a manual titled "The Beaver Restoration Guidebook," to help others bring beavers back to the landscape. The publication examines how beaver dams impact the environment, discusses watershed restoration and offers insights into relocating beavers.
Gillin told the panel that before Europeans came to North America, the continent supported between 60 million and 400 million beavers. By 1900, their systematic removal left only about 100,000 beavers, but a slow recovery has revived populations to about 10 million beavers today. He described how beaver dams work to change and improve the environment for fish and other wildlife.
Nelson told the committee that in 10 years, the Methow Beaver Project has relocated about 400 beavers, and re-established 50 sites. She said public education on the ecological importance of beavers has been an important piece.
Scientists are working on a long-term study on the impacts of beavers on water temperatures, and will soon compile and analyze the information gathered. Also under study is the increase in water storage resulting from relocated beavers, she said.
"The loss of beavers off the landscape was detrimental to our ecosystems," she told the committee. "If we can give them the space they need ... they really are an indispensable partner in our restoration efforts," she concluded. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Corps Releases Draft Mid-C Master Plan
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has released a new draft of the Mid-Columbia River Regional Master Plan, which is open to public comment through Oct. 21.
The plan serves as a strategic management document to guide recreational, natural and cultural resources on Corps-owned lands at Bonneville, The Dalles, and John Day dams and their locks on the Columbia River, and Willow Creek Dam on Willow Creek in Morrow County, Ore. It includes objectives for the efficient and cost-effective management, development and use of these lands for the next 20 years.
Cultural resources, fish and wildlife, aquatic and terrestrial invasive species management, threatened and endangered species, ecological settings, recreational use and facilities are all included in the environmental assessment, prepared in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act.
The plan does not address water quality, water levels, flow rates or the operation and maintenance of these projects, according to the plan's introduction.
Master plans have been guiding the project lands since the 1970s to ensure that they are managed with national objectives and regional needs.
This is the Corps' second release of a draft master plan, which the agency estimates is now about 60 percent complete. The agency will consider comments provided for this draft in its 90 percent draft master plan, which will also be available for public review.
Written comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Attn: CENWP-PM-F/Gail Saldaña, P.O. Box 2946, Portland, OR, 97208-2946.
The agency is also hosting a public meeting which includes a short presentation on the plan, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Oct. 9 at the Dallesport Community Center, 136 6th Ave. in Dallesport, Wash. -K.C. Mehaffey
 Idaho Takes Over BPA-Funded Hagerman Hatchery
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game has assumed operations of the Hagerman National Fish Hatchery, which raises about 1.6 million juvenile steelhead that are released annually in the upper Salmon River Basin. The hatchery had been operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with funding from the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA). It's one of 10 Lower Snake River Compensation Plan hatcheries funded by BPA.
In a news release, IDFG said no spawning or adult holding occurs at the Hagerman national hatchery. Eggs are collected at adult trapping facilities that are already operated by Fish and Game staff in the Salmon River Basin, and delivered to the hatchery.
The agency said that the transfer of operations will allow for greater efficiency and better integration with fisheries management and research programs. The state agency owns and operates an adjacent trout hatchery and also operates five other salmon and steelhead hatcheries that are funded by BPA as part of the Lower Snake River Compensation Plan. Three others are operated by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and two are operated by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
All of the facilities are still owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with operations funded by Bonneville.
Jim Fredericks, Fish and Game's fisheries bureau chief, said in the release that he's confident the transition will be smooth. -K.C. Mehaffey
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