April 2, 2019
A new biological opinion for the federal Columbia River power system aimed at protecting and recovering salmon and steelhead listed under the federal Endangered Species Act was completed Friday and posted without fanfare to the NOAA Fisheries website.
The new 2019 BiOp supersedes NOAA’s 2008/2014 BiOp, which was remanded in federal court in 2016.
In remanding the BiOp, U.S. District Court Judge Michael H. Simon said, among other things, that the 2014 BiOp was not supported by a full-blown National Environmental Policy Act process.
For that reason, hydroelectric action agencies are now in the midst of completing a NEPA environmental impact statement of the eight lower Snake and Columbia river dams. That process, resulting in a new BiOp, is due for completion in late 2020. However, this 2019 BiOp is not supported by a NEPA process.
While Simon did not require NOAA to complete a BiOp this year, the fisheries agency said last year it would complete a 2018 BiOp (now a 2019 BiOp) so that it can update its incidental take statement.
The new BiOp was expected at the end of 2018, but the action agencies initiated consultation with NOAA in order to incorporate a flexible spill operations agreement signed and delivered to Simon’s court Dec. 18, 2018 by the Bonneville Power Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, the states of Oregon and Washington, and the Nez Perce Tribe. Consultation was initiated Nov. 2.
Also delaying the final 2019 BiOp was the January government shutdown.
The new flexible spill operation for juvenile salmonid passage that is now tucked into the new BiOp began this week (April 3) at lower Snake River dams, according to the Corps. Spill at lower Columbia River dams begin next week, April 10.
Spring spill in 2019 looks different than it did in previous years, the Corps said in an April 2 news release. It began implementation of its 24-hour flexible spill operations for the purpose of supporting downstream juvenile fish passage while also providing operational flexibility that allows federal power system benefits at these dams.
“This year’s operation allows us to take advantage of the off-peak, lower power demand hours to provide 16 hours of spill for juvenile fish passage, while reducing spill for up to eight hours during periods of greater power demand,” said Tim Dykstra, senior fish program manager for the Corps’ Northwestern Division.
The transition to summer spill begins June 21 at Snake River dams and June 16 at Columbia River dams. Summer spill for juvenile fish passage ends at all eight dams at midnight September 1.
According to NOAA, the effects of its proposed action in the new 2019 BiOp “are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence” of the 13 species of salmon and steelhead listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA.
In addition, the agency has determined that the proposed action “will not destroy or adversely modify designated critical habitat for the same species” nor is it likely to “adversely affect Southern Resident killer whales and the southern distinct population segment of green sturgeon or their designated habitat.”
NOAA had said last year that it needed to complete a new BiOp in 2018, even before the action agencies completed the NEPA process, so that it could take any necessary administrative steps to address incidental take of species listed under the ESA that would occur between the expiration of the 2008/2014 biological opinion and the 2020 BiOp.
In the letter introducing the 2019 BiOp, Michael Tehan, Assistant Regional Administrator for NOAA Fisheries’ Interior Columbia Basin Office, said that an incidental take statement is included.
The ITS includes reasonable and prudent measures (RPMs) that the agency “considers necessary or appropriate to minimize the impact of incidental take associated with this action. The take statement sets forth nondiscretionary terms and conditions, including reporting requirements that the Action Agencies must comply with to carry out the RPMs. Incidental take from actions in compliance with these terms and conditions will be exempt from ESA take prohibitions,” Tehan wrote.
Last year spring spill to state total dissolved gas limits, known as gas caps, at lower Columbia and Snake river dams was due to Simon’s April 2017 order. He had ordered 24-hour spring spill for the year 2018 only beginning April 3 at lower Snake River projects and April 10 at lower Columbia River projects, and ending June 21 on the Snake River and June 16 on the Columbia River.
However, with the new flexible spill agreement signed Dec. 18, although start and end dates are the same, daily timing of the spill will now be flexible as to dam and time of day in order to reduce costs to the Columbia River basin power system. The new spill agreement will be in effect until federal agencies complete by the end of 2020 a federal Columbia River power system EIS and BiOp for salmon and steelhead listed under the ESA.
The agreement calls for flexible spill operations that meet three objectives:
-- Provide fish benefits of spring spill in 2019-2021 for juvenile salmon migrating through the eight reservoirs that are at least equal to 2018 spring fish passage spill operations ordered by the Court;
-- Provide federal power system benefits as determined by Bonneville, with the understanding that Bonneville must, at a minimum, be no worse financially compared to the 2018 spring fish passage spill operations ordered by the Court;
-- Provide operational feasibility for the Corps implementation that will allow the Corps to make appropriate modifications to planned spring fish passage spill operations.
Action Agencies continue to work on an EIS of the federal hydro system as required by the federal court. The EIS Process Schedule up to this point began September 2016 with a notice of intent, which was followed by scoping the extent and content of the EIS from September through February 2017. The agencies developed alternatives through December 2018 and are currently analyzing the alternatives.
The agencies’ revised EIS schedule is at https://media.defense.gov/2019/Jan/09/2002077981/-1/-1/0/190109-A-A1408-001.PNG:
-- a draft EIS will be ready for review in February 2020 (the original schedule called for the completion of a draft March 27, 2020;
-- by June 2020, the public comment review and synthesis, preparation of the final EIS and identification of the preferred alternative will be complete;
-- June 2020, issue final EIS (the original schedule called for a final EIS by March 26, 2021);
-- September 30, 2020, the final Records of Decision (previously, that was scheduled one year later, Sept. 24, 2021).