Friday, December 08, 2017
Federal agencies that operate fourteen Columbia/Snake River dams described this week their progress one year into a five-year National Environmental Policy Act process required by a court-ordered rewrite of the biological opinion for protected salmon and steelhead.
The information was offered at two public open houses this week in Portland.
Agency representatives responsible for the process – the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration – said at an afternoon and evening meeting Thursday, Dec. 7, that the nearly one-year long scoping for a Columbia River System Operations environmental impact statement had ended and they are now developing alternatives for a detailed evaluation. That, ultimately, will result in a draft EIS one and a half years down the road, in 2020.
Following the scoping process, the next two steps are a detailed analysis of alternatives (in progress) and a draft EIS by March 27, 2020. The Final EIS is set for March 26, 2021 and a formal Record of Decision Sept. 24, 2021.
The NEPA/EIS process is broad, evaluating impacts on the multiple uses of the dams, such as flood control, navigation, hydropower production, irrigation, water supply, recreation and fish and wildlife conservation. It is not just aimed at an evaluation of alternatives for a new basin salmon/steelhead BiOp.
“We recognize that the ESA focus is important and a driver of this EIS,” said Lydia Grimm of BPA’s policy group. “But we have a lot of authorized purposes (for the dams) and we must take a comprehensive look at all of these. Clearly, we’re looking at the ESA issue as a big driver, but that is not the only driver.”
She added that the federal agencies continue to anticipate meeting U.S. District Court of Oregon Judge Michael H. Simon’s schedule for an interim BiOp by December 31, 2018 and a final BiOp at the end of the NEPA process in 2021.
Both the broad scope of the NEPA/EIS process and the potential to suspend the interim BiOp requirement were the subjects of a status conference in Simon’s court, Tuesday, November 28 in Portland.
Plaintiffs in the case that had resulted in the remand – the National Wildlife Federation et al – said last week that the federal agencies’ NEPA review was too wide-ranging and far beyond a focus on reasonable and prudent alternatives that would be needed to inform a new BiOp.
In addition, Simon acknowledged at the status conference that the 2018 BiOp would not have the foundation of a new EIS, and said “it would be best to dispense of the 2018 BiOp until we get to a point where we can operate under a sufficient EIS.”
(See CBB, December 1, 2017, “Judge Floats Idea Of Suspending Work On 2018 BiOp For Salmon/Steelhead Due To Lack Of Completed EIS,” http://www.cbbulletin.com/439901.aspx)
NOAA Fisheries’ biological opinion, or “BiOp,” sets “reasonable and prudent alternatives” intended to mitigate for impacts of the federal dams on 13 species of Columbia River basin salmon and steelhead listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. Subsequent recovery plans for each listed species outlines the standards
for recovery and the actions required to meet them.
During the scoping process, the agencies held at least 16 public workshops in Idaho, Washington and Oregon, two webinar meetings, and met with tribes and other governments, receiving 400,000 comments along the way. A Scoping Summary was published in October (see the report at http://www.crso.info/102017_report.html).
Comments during scoping were wide-ranging and varied, said Rebecca Weiss of the Corps.
“We received comments over a broad range of topic areas and we all have different values that we bring to the process,” she said of the parties who provided comments.
Among the comments were those about the NEPA process itself, suggested alternatives, climate change, water quality and supply, wildlife, flood risk, tribal interests, power and transmission, navigation, recreation, socioeconomic issues and breaching the four lower Snake River dams.
Preliminary to developing alternatives, the agencies are reviewing more than 100 objectives (defined as the results wanted) and more than 500 measures (an action at a specific location).
Broad objectives are:
--Improve juvenile and adult fish passage and long-term survival of anadromous fish.
--Improve survival and habitat connectivity for resident fish.
--Provide a reliable power supply and minimize carbon emissions.
--Maximize operating flexibility and adaptable water management
--Provide unmet authorized regional water supply.
Among the alternatives being evaluated for anadromous fish passage, Weiss said, are increased spill up to 125 percent total dissolved gas, flow augmentation, improved fish passage and dam breaching. The EIS will also address resident fish, such as Kootenai River sturgeon and bull trout.
On the operations side, some alternatives will include water management flexibility, changing rule curves and flood control curves so that the system can be more responsive to current weather conditions – extended dry or wet periods.
Some secondary objectives include those for unlisted fish, such as lamprey passage at dams.
Attorney James Buchal, who represents the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association in the U.S. District Court’s BiOp case, as well as Simon’s injunction to provide more spill at the lower Snake and lower Columbia river dams, suggested at the afternoon public meeting that the agencies should consider the “God Squad” itself as an alternative.
The eastern Washington irrigators had petitioned President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team in November 2016 to reconvene the Endangered Species Act Committee, known as the God Squad, for a “reconsultation” of the federal power system’s biological opinion for salmon and steelhead. That would, in effect, circumvent Simon’s BiOp remand and make the current NEPA process moot.