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Restoring the Lower Snake River

2011ReportLate last Friday, the federal “Action Agencies” (Bonneville Power Administration, Army Corps of Engineers, and Bureau of Reclamation) that run the federal dams on the Snake and Columbia Rivers, submitted their 2011 Annual Progress report to the U.S. district court in Portland, Oregon, that’s overseeing the ongoing litigation over the federal salmon plan (also known as a biological opinion). This annual self-assessment presents the agencies’ view of how well they are implementing a biological opinion (in this case, one that has already been ruled illegal in court). This morning, the main findings were presented to interested parties at NOAA’s offices in Portland.

One thing we can all agree on is that the Federal Agencies' Progress Report is filled with good-looking images and glowing words about how well they believe they’re doing. But if you look a little closer, past the glossy images and context-free statistics, some troubling truths emerge:

Wild salmon and steelhead populations remain in serious trouble.
While the Action Agencies tout "record returns," 80% of adult salmon returning to the Columbia and Snake Rivers are hatchery fish. The massive infusion of hatchery fish - while important for helping to sustain salmon-dependent communities and some key wild runs - also serves to mask a deeper problem: most wild salmon and steelhead remain on the brink. (Here’s our most recent update on this year’s poor returns)

Fuzzy math clouds the full picture of fish mortality.  
The Action Agencies are very proud of their per-dam survival rates - which look deceptively good on paper. But the biological opinion and this Progress Report fail to consider the fish that perish in the slackwater reservoirs behind these dams as well as the impacts of delayed mortality - the percentage of juvenile fish that make it all the way to the estuary or even the Pacific Ocean, but don't survive to return as adults because of the cumulative impacts of migrating through four or eight dams. While achieving 93-96% survival at each dam is a fine goal, it ignores the full impacts of what happens to salmon in real life. Maybe that's why even though the Action Agencies are meeting these per-dam standards at most of the Snake and Columbia dams, salmon are still in trouble - because the federal agencies' fuzzy math simply can't get us to recovery.

Return-on-investment shortfall in illegal salmon plan.  
The Action Agencies are spending millions and millions of dollars on habitat projects - what they refer to as "offsite mitigation" for the effects of the impacts of the hydropower system. But there is a yawning gap between what the agencies are implementing  and the actual survival benefits salmon and steelhead populations need now. In fact, this was a major reason that a federal court struck down the BiOp we're talking about here. We're in favor of restoring habitat, but both the BiOp and this Progress Report fail to show that these projects can make up for the massive harm caused by the hydrosystem, let alone in a time frame that recovers salmon - perhaps because trying to mitigate the daily mortality at the dams with habitat work that can take years to complete simply doesn't pencil out.

Still no effort towards one of the most successful measures for salmon: more water.
The Progress Report notes that the Action Agencies use adaptive management to make mid-course adjustments based on new scientific information. If this is the case, we'd be interested to know how the federal agencies intend to incorporate the latest science from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and state and Tribal fisheries biologists concluding that more water spilled at the dams, throughout the spring and summer, could do wonders for helping us dramatically improve survival of  several key runs of salmon. (Here's the link to the latest science, the CSS report)

A track record of broken promises.
The agencies – which long ago fell behind on doing even what they promised to do in 2008 and 2010 -- have not yet made up for previous shortfalls, and are failing to deal adequately at all with ongoing and increasing threats. For example, in 2010 the agencies admitted that they had completed only about 25% of the actions they had promised to take in the estuary in the first few years of the BiOp. Although they promised to catch up in future years, this deficit goes unmentioned in the latest progress report.  At the same time, the agencies are failing to deal with the skyrocketing number of young salmon consumed by cormorants – a threat that they knew about and ignored when they adopted the BiOp, but that reached an all-time high in 2011. The progress report carefully omits any discussion of this larger context.

The real problem remains: the BiOp they're implementing is illegal.
The reason the 2008/2010 BiOp was struck down by a federal court is that it fails to put the right actions and measures in place to ensure that imperiled salmon and steelhead are given a reasonable shot at both survival and, someday, recovery. So the agencies can check off their to-do's, but without a legal, science-based plan in place - one that departs from the status quo, failed policies of the past decade - we're basically just treading water, and in some cases, sinking. For the wild salmon and steelhead populations throughout the Columbia-Snake Basin that remain in serious trouble, that sure doesn't sound like progress.

We support the Oregon Governor's call last weekend for a new approach to salmon restoration on the Columbia-Snake. This “progress” report from the federal agencies reinforces Governor Kitzhaber’s call to find a new path forward. (More information)

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