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Restoring the Lower Snake River

Latest bio-op draft avoids calls for dam breaching, increasing spills over dams to restore salmon runs

newspaperBy ERIC BARKER of the Tribune | Sept 10, 2013

To the chagrin of salmon advocates, the federal government Monday renewed its focus on easing dam-related mortality on wild salmon and steelhead by improving tributary and estuary habitat.

The latest draft of its biological opinion on the dams does not seek to spill more water at the dams, nor does it call for breaching the four lower Snake River dams - two measures salmon advocates, including the Nez Perce Tribe and a coalition of environmental groups - have backed.

The Nez Perce and the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition have successfully challenged the government's previous four biological opinions, the latest coming in 2011. In that case, federal Judge James Redden at Portland, Ore., ruled the plan illegal because it depended on unspecified habitat improvement projects to make up for fish killed at the dams.

The 751-page draft plan released Monday, commonly called a bio-op, attempts to fix that shortcoming by laying out a course of specific actions that will be taken through 2018 in tributaries and the Columbia River estuary. As with earlier versions, Bruce Suzumoto, head of the National Marine Fisheries Service hydro division, said government scientists believe those improvements - which cost an estimated $30 million annually - will boost survival of wild juvenile salmon enough to offset the number that are killed by the dams.

"We found our original analysis was correct and it was not necessary to look at additional actions including additional spill or dam breaching," he said.

The approach was panned by environmentalists who want more aggressive action to save and eventually recover 13 populations of threatened and endangered fish, including Snake River steelhead, spring chinook, fall chinook and sockeye salmon.

"All four of the government's salmon recovery plans to date have been declared illegal, and there's nothing in this new draft plan to indicate a new direction," said Greg Stahl, salmon program manager for Boise-based Idaho Rivers United. "The two years since the last plan was ruled illegal were an opportunity to build a foundation for collaborative talks. This plan won't help us move in that direction."

Officials at the Nez Perce Tribe were reviewing the draft plan Monday and were not yet prepared to comment.

Aside from breaching the dams, ongoing studies indicate that increasing spill at the dams by as much as 40 percent may produce juvenile salmon and steelhead survival rates that could lead toward recovery. However, instead of increasing spill, the plan includes a measure that could end spill earlier in the year under certain conditions.

According the current court-ordered plan, water is spilled at all eight Snake and Columbia River dams through August to help the young fish reach the ocean. Rock Peters, a senior program manager at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the new plan could end spill at Snake River dams in August if the number of juvenile fall chinook counted as they migrate downstream falls below 300 per day.

"We would continue to use (fish) bypass facilities at the dam and (barge) transportation," he said.

The agency is accepting comment on the plan through Oct. 7. The plan is available for viewing at


Barker may be contacted at or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.

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