Agencies issue plan to run Columbia dams, preserve salmon

By Jeff Barnard
AP Environmental Writer 5-08

The Bush administration May 5th issued its final court-ordered plans for making Columbia Basin hydroelectric dams and irrigation projects safe for endangered salmon, calling them the most robust and comprehensive effort yet.

But salmon advocates blasted them as a step backward, saying they depend too much on restoring habitat in tributaries to boost fish numbers and not enough on reducing the high numbers of young salmon killed by 14 dams on their way to the sea.

“Ultimately, this plan shows it is time for Congress and the next administration to restore the balance in this river, assure the law and science are followed, and protect the thousands of family wage jobs,” said Todd True, lead attorney for salmon advocates.

Once an expected challenge is filed, it will be up to U.S. District Judge James Redden to decide whether the plans – known as biological opinions – meet the demands of the Endangered Species Act to put salmon on the road to recovery.

Late last year he warned the original proposal was seriously flawed, and he would turn the job over to an independent panel of experts if it fails again.

Each of the dams kills only a small percentage of the millions of young salmon headed downstream during their spring and summer migrations to the ocean, but that adds up to a major death toll. Fish get lost and become easy prey for birds and bigger fish in the slow waters of reservoirs behind the dams. Fish going through turbines and spillways can be killed by turbulence or abrupt pressure changes. Adult fish returning to spawn become easy prey for sea lions that congregate around fish ladders.

The challenge is to boost the survival of young fish migrating to the ocean while still allowing the region’s primary source of power to operate profitably, bankrolling much of the restoration effort.

Those problems are compounded by climatic conditions that in recent years have produced a collapse of the ocean food chain, which contributed to a shutdown of commercial and recreational salmon fishing this year in the ocean off California and Oregon.

NOAA Fisheries Service, the agency in charge of salmon restoration, concluded that without any changes, the dams jeopardize the survival of 13 threatened and endangered species of salmon and steelhead, but that with enough additional help, the fish can one day thrive.

“It is my deepest hope that those who traditionally continue to litigate might be willing to look beyond the litigation and support a 10-year effort in which we focus on trying to recover fish rather than arguing about methods or standards,” said Bob Lohn, northwest administrator of NOAA Fisheries.

NOAA Fisheries issued three separate biological opinions. One covers operations of the 14 federal hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Another expands the flexibility of operations of Upper Snake River irrigation projects in southern Idaho and Eastern Oregon, so they can provide more water for salmon migrations at critical times. The third puts new controls on tribal, recreational and commercial fishing in the Columbia and Snake rivers.

Some 4,000 pages of materials detail modifications to the dams themselves, changes in dam operations, hauling young salmon around dams, expanded and improved hatchery operations, predator control and improvements to river habitat.

The changes are estimated to cost Bonneville Power Administration $75 million a year, on top of about $600 million it spends on fish and wildlife, requiring a 3 percent increase in wholesale power rates, Administrator Steve Wright said.

The spending partially overlaps $900 million that federal agencies last week agreed to give Indian tribes for salmon recovery in return for dropping out of the lawsuit over dam operations. When that is factored in, BPA wholesale rates go up 4 percent, Wright added.

Capital improvements to the dams will cost about $500 million, which initially must be appropriated by Congress, but ultimately will be repaid in part by BPA ratepayers, said Witt Anderson, project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The plans do not include removing four dams on the lower Snake River in Eastern Washington, which is favored by salmon advocates.

NOAA Fisheries also concluded that the hydroelectric system can be operated without harming green sturgeon, which also migrate over the dams, and killer whales, some of which depend on salmon for food.

Three different biological opinions have been found in violation of the Endangered Species Act since 1994, and salmon advocates who brought the latest court challenge said their initial review of the latest one was no better.

Jim Martin, a former chief of fisheries for the state of Oregon now representing fishing tackle companies, said the plan reduced the amount of water diverted through spillways and away from turbines to help young salmon migrate to the ocean. He added that the plan relied too much on improving habitat and not enough on reducing the death toll from the dams.

Lohn said the amount of spill is no longer the factor it once was, because six dams have been modified to make spillways safer for fish with less water, and plans are to modify two more. The targets for fish survival at each dam – 96 percent during spring migrations and 93 percent in summer – were higher than in previous biological opinions.

Editors: Jeff Barnard covers the environment from his office in Grants Pass, Ore.

On the Net:

NOAA Fisheries final salmon biological opinions: -BOs.cfm