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Restoring the Lower Snake River

September 14, 2013 
Bigger spills over dams as an alternative to breaching won't be tested for now, but the debate isn't over.


State, tribal and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists say increasing the amount of water spilled over Snake and Columbia river dams may improve salmon migration enough to put the endangered fish on the road to recovery.

They want to test this theory by increasing spill over the dams and away from hydro turbines. Since this promising approach takes dam breaching off the table for the near future, you would think it might have been considered as a part of the draft of the new federal salmon and dam plan released Monday.

But the federal agencies that operate eight dams between the Pacific and Idaho's spawning streams rejected the test as a part of their draft plan, called a biological opinion or "bi-op." In fact, they are calling for reducing spill in August when the number of migrating fish drops, and in late May in some cases so they can put more fish in barges and carry them past the dams. 

"The bi-op simply rolls forward the same elements that did not stand up in court and, on top of that, it rolls back the one management action that the existing science supports: the spill," said Ed Bowles, Fish Division administrator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The biological opinion, which guides dam operations designed to protect the 13 stocks of threatened and endangered salmon, was ordered revised by then-U.S. District Judge James Redden in 2011.

Redden said the agencies had not shown that the habitat restoration programs that offset salmon losses from the dams were likely to occur after 2013. In the latest response, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service, which is responsible for the bi-op, showed funding and authority for future restoration work. But it stuck to its own scientific analysis in the Sept. 9 document - the same logic that led Oregon, the Nez Perce Tribe, and conservation and fisheries groups to sue in 2008. It was the fourth time they'd sued since 1992.

"I know some folks don't agree with us, but that's our job," said Bruce Suzumoto, NOAA Fisheries assistant regional administrator.

Since Snake River sockeye were first listed under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1991, every person living in the Pacific Northwest has been affected. Listing has impacted electric rates, water availability, rules for development, logging, farming, mining and recreation.

But salmon are an icon of the Northwest that provides spiritual sustenance to its Indian tribes and food for the table.


Redden, who retired soon after his 2011 ruling, was skeptical of the federal analysis and said he thought they would have to eventually breach four dams on the Snake River in Washington to recover salmon and steelhead to sustainable populations in Idaho and Oregon. That's why Oregon, the Nez Perce and groups like Idaho Rivers United are ready to go back to federal court in 2014. The absence of a single reference to dam breaching in press releases this week from them and other critics of the draft federal plan shows how much the debate has shifted.

"Instead of considering a spill test in its draft plan, NOAA has opted to roll back current spill to even lower levels and has rejected majority science in the process," Idaho Rivers United salmon program manager Greg Stahl said.

The federal plan, which has evolved over the last 20 years, includes not only improvements on the dams and in river operations, but also the largest habitat restoration program in the world. It also addresses improvements in hatchery operations and harvest management, largely paid for with revenues from marketing power from the hydroelectric dams.

It comes as record numbers of fall chinook appear to be returning to spawn this year. But other salmon, including Idaho's wild spring-summer chinook, are nowhere near recovered levels.

The bi-op also affects the operation of the Port of Lewiston and other barging operations whose business has dwindled over the past 20 years. A separate biological opinion remains in place for federal dams on the Snake River and its tributaries in Idaho, including the Boise and Payette rivers.
Issues around water from the Snake River in Idaho have been resolved for now by the 2004 Nez Perce Agreement, a water deal approved by Idaho, the federal government and the Nez Perce Tribe.


In 2012, NOAA launched interviews with more than 200 people, agencies, tribes and officials throughout the region to determine whether it could develop a collaborative process to write a recovery plan for the region. A report is expected in the next several months.

But if the two sides again end up in court, a separate collaborative process would be difficult.

Norm Semanko, executive director of the Idaho Water Users Association, said even though the Nez Perce Agreement gives Idaho water interests some comfort, river groups have not taken a previous unresolved lawsuit off the table.

"It's pretty hard taking that discussion seriously while they're still holding a gun to our head," he said.

The more the dam operators spill water through the spillways and away from hydro turbines, the less hydropower they produce and the less money they make. The salmon program has cost $13 billion since the 1980s - $10 billion of that in the last decade - mostly financed by the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets power from the dams.

"This is an incredible resource we have in the Northwest," said Terry Flores, of Northwest RiverPartners, a group that represents economic interests tied to the dams. "It does keep our carbon footprint lower."


That's why Flores would rather try lower spills to test expensive new fish slides installed at several dams to improve passage.

The proposal to increase spills also would increase the amount of nitrogen gas added to the water below the dams to a level higher than currently allowed. High levels of nitrogen create bubbles in fish's blood similar to those that cause the "bends" in human divers.

"They seem willing to play Russian roulette with fish mortality," Flores said of high-spill advocates. "It seems so counterintuitive."

Joseph Bogaard, of Seattle, is the incoming executive director of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, replacing one of its founders, Pat Ford of Boise. Bogaard said his group and other fish advocates haven't given up on dam breaching. But they see increased spill as something that can help salmon right away.

He'd like to see the region working collaboratively on a recovery plan, but the draft bi-op will make it hard for salmon advocates to stay out of court.

"An expanded spill program is not going to be determinative, but it's really a big piece," he said.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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