Breaching one or more of the lower Snake River dams will be necessary to achieve "healthy and harvestable" returns of salmon and steelhead to the Columbia Basin by 2050, according to a draft report by NOAA Fisheries.
But breaching alone will not be enough to reach mid-level goals outlined by the Columbia Basin Partnership Task Force, such as recovery levels that go far beyond preventing extinction, the July 12 report said.
Other essential actions include reintroducing salmon into upper Columbia River blocked areas, improving fish passage at lower Columbia River dams, and improving water quality and quantity.
"We know these will be difficult and costly," NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator Janet Coit said during a July 11 press conference. She added, "We are at a crucial moment for salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River basin when we're seeing the impacts of climate change on top of other stressors, and this draft report delivers our scientific assessment of what we must do to make progress."
The report said rebuilding salmon runs will depend on large-scale actions. "Inaction will result in the catastrophic loss of the majority of Columbia River basin salmon and steelhead stocks. Some uncertainty surrounding the exact magnitude of beneficial response of acting does not warrant inaction," it stated.
NOAA Fisheries scientist Chris Jordan said the region has done an enormous amount of work to recover salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin without seeing recovery. "We need to go to larger-scale actions, and more cohesive systematic planning," he said, adding, "What are our other options that considerably turn up the volume of effort from what we have done over the last 20 years?"
The draft report, "Rebuilding Interior Columbia Basin Salmon and Steelhead," was released in conjunction with an independent study commissioned by BPA to model how energy services of the lower Snake River dams could be replaced with other power sources. The Energy and Environmental Economics study was also made public on July 12.
Federal officials at the press conference said the Biden administration at this time is not endorsing or recommending any of the specific actions in NOAA's report, including dam breaching.
"These two reports add to the picture—that we are working alongside regional leaders to develop—of what it will take over the decades ahead to restore salmon populations, honor our commitments to tribal nations, deliver clean power, and meet the many needs of stakeholders across the region," White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory said.
Also helping on the draft report was the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with input from the Nez Perce Tribe and the State of Oregon. State and tribal fish managers in the region are being asked to review it.
While dam breaching is the most controversial finding, the report emphasizes a suite of aggressive actions will be needed to reach ambitious abundance levels for 16 stocks above Bonneville Dam that the NOAA-led task force set as its mid-level goals two years ago. The report identified three "centerpiece actions" required to rebuild specific, high-priority stocks, stating:
"For Snake River stocks, it is essential that the lower Snake River be restored via dam breaching.
"For upper Columbia River stocks, it is essential to provide passage into blocked areas.
"For mid-Columbia stocks, in addition to improved passage through lower mainstem dams, it is necessary to improve water quality and quantity and passage survival in focused areas of low to mid-elevation tributary habitats."
Other actions required include management of predators, tributary and estuarine habitat restoration, and hatchery and harvest reform.
It's still undetermined whether higher spill will be used to improve passage.
In an email to NW Fishletter, NOAA Fisheries' Columbia Hydropower Branch Chief Ritchie Graves wrote that it's not yet clear whether high spill at lower Columbia River dams has improved juvenile survival or will increase adult returns, since spilling to 125 percent total dissolved gas at most of the dams has only been in place since last year.
"There are some improvements anticipated for the adult fishways at [John Day Dam] and [McNary Dam] that we'd expect will reduce adult delays during the summer months," he wrote. "But otherwise, we are mostly waiting to see what we are getting from the operations we've been implementing for only two years."
NOAA's report prioritizes five of the 16 stocks. Four of them—Snake River spring-summer Chinook, Snake River steelhead, upper Columbia River spring Chinook and upper Columbia River steelhead—are at high risk of extinction.
The fifth, upper Columbia River fall Chinook, is a high priority as the only significant commercial fishery remaining for Columbia River treaty tribes.
Scientists then ranked the limiting factors to recovery and found that the hydro system has the greatest impact on 10 of the 16 runs and the second-greatest impact on four others. This observation was based on the levels of indirect mortality—where delayed effects from transiting the hydro system occur during the first year of ocean residence—and direct mortality.
The report itself does not specify whether one or more lower Snake River dams need to be breached to restore salmon, but states, "To restore more normative river conditions and function in the lower Snake River, it is essential that dams be breached." That will provide the highest likelihood of achieving higher smolt-to-adult returns, decreasing travel time for juvenile fish, reducing powerhouse encounters and reducing stress on juvenile fish associated with delayed mortality from the hydro-system experience, it says.
The scientists also wrote that opportunities to rebuild these stocks will likely diminish over time due to climate change.
"[T]he importance and necessity of meaningful actions is heightened, not diminished because of the impacts of climate change," it states. It calls the short-term outlook for interior Columbia River salmon and steelhead "grim" due to recent abundance trends and productivity below replacement levels. Despite their resiliency, "all optimism about potential future stock status must be tempered by the continued pressure from a changing climate and the ever-expanding human footprint. Only rapid, concerted, system-wide actions keyed to existing strongholds of stock potential will result in durable biological benefits to interior Columbia stocks," it says.
Northwest tribes and environmental groups applauded the report, while energy industry groups expressed disappointment.
"We are concerned that a largely unaccountable agency, operating with limited input, would take such dramatic steps in the Pacific Northwest that appear to reverse not only the Administration's position on the Columbia River System Operations EIS, but also key priorities on electric system reliability, economic recovery, and climate change," the Public Power Council said in an email to NW Fishletter. "The dialogue pertaining to the LSRDs is complex and can be advanced only through high-quality analysis used in a transparent and open manner. There is a long history of the Northwest Delegation working in a bipartisan manner to defend the value of the federal hydro system for the consumers it serves, and we hope they will once again work to preserve the reliability, affordable service, and clean energy benefits of that system."
Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, said he's troubled by the report.
"Unfortunately, we have no confidence in this latest report from NOAA Fisheries," Miller said. "Not only does it apparently contradict NOAA's work from the peer-reviewed 2020 EIS process, but the report specifically notes its reliance upon scientific input from two leading plaintiffs groups that have been very engaged in efforts to remove the dams for years.
"The report also notes it lacks reasonable estimates on the biological benefit of dam breaching, but NOAA still says it is confident in its effectiveness," he continued. "Candidly, that is a troubling statement for an organization responsible for following real science. The truth is that breaching the dams will cost the region's electricity customers billions of dollars and add to the problem of climate change, which is the most serious problem facing salmon."
Joseph Bogaard, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon, told NW Fishletter that from his perspective, it settles the science on the need to breach lower Snake River dams.
"The NOAA report, I think, confirms what salmon and fishing advocates have been saying for a long time, based on a lot of scientists who have weighed in for many years—we've got to restore the Lower Snake if we're going to restore the fish populations that remain," Bogaard said.
He added that he is glad to see that the federal agencies now seem to be in alliance with groups that see an urgency and necessity to take action, but noted, "Time is not on our side."
He also said he hopes the report brings people together to focus on developing an action plan to move forward on removing the dams in a way that will invest in the region's communities and infrastructure.
Darryll Olsen, board representative for the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association, told NW Fishletter that he was not at all surprised by NOAA's report.
"It's exactly as one would have anticipated," he said. The report gives plaintiffs in National Wildlife Federation et al. v. National Marine Fisheries Service et al. a lot of traction, right when a stay on litigation is about to expire, he said.
Given NOAA's findings, Olsen said he's not sure how federal agencies can defend their support of the 2020 Columbia River System Operations EIS and biological opinion. He wondered what offerings will be made in order to continue that stay and said the report only confirms what he's long known about the future of the dams.
"People are saying, 'We've got to protect the hydro system.' We're looking at it and saying, 'Things have changed. Bury the dead and let's move on,'" he said.