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Restoring the Lower Snake River


January 20, 2014

sockeye NEO webSalmon and steelhead are further away from extinction than they were a decade ago. But whether they are closer to recovery will be the main issue argued again soon in federal court.

The abundance of the 13 stocks of salmon in the Snake and Columbia rivers has increased over the past five years and the threat of extinction has dropped, say the federal dam and salmon managers on the Columbia River system. They filed their latest biological opinion Friday in the court of U.S. District Judge Michael Simon in Portland.

The plan shows how they say operations will avoid jeopardizing salmon and steelhead to meet the order of Simon’s predecessor, Judge James Redden.

The actions they are taking are enough to meet their responsibilities to protect the fish, they say. Those include the surface passage devices dam managers have added to several of the eight dams between Idaho and the Pacific. And it includes the billions of dollars in habitat improvement projects they have funded in tributaries like the Lemhi.

Their five-year plan calls for some reduction in “spill” — the water sent over the dams away from hydroelectric turbines — and for using more barges to haul more fish around the dams for a longer period in the late spring and summer. They make no mention of dam breaching.

And while a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries official said managers remain open to considering a test of spilling even more water to speed the migration of young salmon through the dams, the proposal from state, tribal and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists was not included in the plan.

That means the issue will be back in court. Sporting groups, fishermen, environmentalists, the state of Oregon and the Nez Perce tribe are expected to challenge the plan.

“All four of the government’s salmon recovery plans to date have been declared illegal, and there’s nothing in this new plan to indicate a new direction,” said Greg Stahl, Idaho Rivers United salmon program manager.

The federal plan is based on making improvements at all phases of the salmon life cycle, except in the ocean, which federal officials can’t manage. The plan has performance standards to ensure that 96 percent of all migrating salmon pass each dam.

With the numbers of wild salmon up, managers argue they are meeting the legal standard of the Endangered Species Act. Productivity, a measure of the number of salmon that return for each spawning fish, is down slightly but not outside of the range of estimates, said Barry Thom, deputy regional administrator of NOAA Fisheries.

He made it clear the goal of this five-year plan is stability, not recovery, of fish populations. The Columbia and Snake salmon ecosystems “are not close to being recovered systems,” Thom said.

So the federal agencies hope they will convince Simon they have done enough to show that their standards for deciding on a particular action don’t jeopardize the existence of an endangered species.

Before he retired in 2011, Redden didn’t rule on that issue. But he made it clear he did not buy the federal dam operators’ version of “recovery standard”: That if there is any increased abundance or productivity, then a species is “trending toward recovery” and thus not likely to be jeopardized.

In court, the federal agencies argued that their standard showed the salmon have “adequate potential for recovery,” a threshold set by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The debate in court today doesn’t carry the kinds of economic and social implications that it carried in the days when the case was before Judge Redden. Simon is unlikely to force decisions about breaching four Snake River dams or increasing spill levels to the point of a major impact on electricity production.

And tapping water from Idaho reservoirs isn’t even on the table, a major reason Idaho has watched the debate so closely.

The returns of Idaho spring-summer chinook are expected to increase this year to 34,000 wild fish and another 47,000 hatchery fish. That means better fishing this spring but numbers that are still nowhere near what Idaho could expect from a recovered healthy population of 70,000 to more than 100,000 wild fish. That’s the population Idaho’s healthy spawning and rearing habitat could sustain if productivity returned to the pre-dam levels.

In 1995, less than 20 years ago, just 2,200 spring-summer chinook made it home to Idaho. That shows that the Endangered Species Act and past court battles have helped the fisheries officials and the $10 billion they’ve spent make progress.

Today, ocean conditions are good, as they have been since 1995. Until ocean temperatures inevitably cycle and turn warmer — favoring Pacific predators rather than the zooplankton that salmon eat — there will be little political motivation for change.

And when salmon populations drop once again — something no one wants but which, experts say, is inevitable — breaching those Snake River dams will be back in the conversation.

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