U.S. Spawns Final Columbia/Snake River Salmon Recovery Plan

By Brian Hansen

SEATTLE, Washington, December 22, 2000 (ENS) - A coalition of nine federal agencies on Thursday unveiled a final long term strategy designed to recover threatened and endangered salmon throughout the Columbia/Snake River Basin in the Pacific Northwest.

The strategy calls for actions to restore critical salmon habitat, reform salmon hatchery operations, limit salmon harvest, and improve river flows. But it does not recommend that any of the hydropower dams on the lower Snake River be removed, a strategy advocated by many environmental groups.

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Chinook salmon (Photo by Konrad Schmidt courtesy of U. of Minnesota)
"We concluded that dam breaching was not the most effective means to recover the fish, and we also took into consideration the fact that breaching dams isn't currently within the authority of the [participating federal agencies]," said Donna Darm, acting regional administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). "When we looked at what happens to these fish across their life cycle, we determined that dam breaching would not, by itself, achieve recovery."

Still, under the finalized salmon recovery strategy, breaching the dams will remain an option if conservation efforts do not meet strict performance standards, Darm emphasized.

The recovery strategy calls for comprehensive reviews to be conducted in 2003, 2005 and 2008, in which clear and objective benchmarks will be used to gauge the success or failure of the program, Darn said. Congress would need to approve the removal of any of the four hydropower dams, noted Brigadier General Carl Strock of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Under the final recovery strategy, that process could not begin until 2003 at the earliest, Strock said.

"At the three and five year check in points, if we're not making the performance standards, there is a mechanism that requests the Corps begin the preliminary engineering design studies necessary to move us on to dam breaching," Strock said.

Many environmental groups are worried that President elect George W. Bush will derail any attempts to remove the dams, even if that action is called for through the performance reviews. While campaigning in the Pacific Northwest earlier this year, Bush promised to save the salmon, but said he opposed dam removal.

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The Lower Monumental Dam on the Snake River, one of four federal dams that could someday be removed to help save Pacific salmon (Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
Darm said on Thursday that no one from the incoming Bush administration - or Congress - had contacted the Fisheries Service about the newly hatched salmon recovery plan. Asked whether she thought that the Bush administration or the Republican Congress would try to scuttle the plan, Darn said, "Our view is that this is the most responsible and sensible approach to recovering the Columbia basin fish. I would anticipate that we would get full support from the new administration and from Congress in carrying out this plan."

While hopeful, the nation's major environmental groups were not as certain that the incoming Bush administration would adhere to the principles of the newly finalized salmon recovery strategy. Mark Van Putten, president of the National Wildlife Federation, said that Bush now has the issue of salmon recovery "squarely before him."

"One of Mr. Bush's first major environmental decisions will be whether or not to back these recommendations to the hilt, realizing that if they do not lead to salmon recovery, we must be ready to move ahead with removal of the four Lower Snake River dams," Van Putten said.

Van Putten's point was echoed by Carl Pope, president of the 600,000 member Sierra Club.

"The fate of the wild salmon of the Northwest will be determined on President elect Bush's watch," Pope said. "To save our wild salmon, President elect Bush will have to fully fund and aggressively implement all of the measures in the biological opinion. If those measures fail, we need to be prepared to remove the dams as soon as possible."

The four federally operated hydropower dams, along with the cumulative impacts of ongoing habitat degradation, harvest and hatchery management practices have thrown the remaining Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead into a serious and long term state of decline. Scientists say that unless major changes are enacted to mitigate these impacts, the remaining salmon and steelhead populations could be extirpated by the year 2017.

ice harbor

The plan includes installing better fish passageways on the four dams, including Ice Harbor Dam (Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
The final recovery strategy unveiled this week is the culmination of years of research and study. It builds on the so-called "Four H Working Paper" released last year, which analyzed the four human activities that are harming the imperiled fish: habitat degradation, harvest activities, hatchery production and hydropower operations.

Part of the final recovery strategy unveiled Thursday comes in the form of two biological opinions: one from the Fisheries Service and one from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).

The opinions govern how the basin's massive federal hydropower system can best be managed to minimize harm to salmon and steelhead as they migrate to the sea and back. In addition, the opinions recommend conservation strategies for the bull trout and the white sturgeon, which also reside in the area.

Specifically, the new Fisheries Service opinion sets minimum water flow levels for the Snake and Columbia rivers during critical parts of the year.

The opinion calls for more spill of water over eight hydroelectric dams in the region, and it requires that fish passage facilities at those dams be upgraded for both downstream juveniles and returning adults. Moreover, the strategy requires that revenue from dam operations be used to pay for actions to restore fish habitat and hatchery operations on the waterways.

All told, the program is expected to cost an average of $500 million per year, although the initiative will be funded, in part, with federal monies derived from other sources.

Little Goose

Critics say leaving the four dams intact, including the Little Goose Dam, could mean extinction for the salmon (Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
George Frampton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, told reporters on Thursday that the federal government might have to appropriate as much as $190 million to support the recovery program through fiscal year 2001.

"Funding needs for salmon restoration may as much as double in future fiscal years based on funding decisions made through the annual appropriations process," Frampton said.

The biological opinion drafted by the Fish and Wildlife Service proposes a number of actions designed to protect the basin's bull trout. The FWS opinion recommends that a number of operational changes be made to dams in the upper Columbia River basin, where hydropower operations have the greatest effect on the bull trout and other species.

Specifically, the FWS opinion calls for modified flood control at the Libby and Hungry Horse dams in order to benefit bull trout, white sturgeon and salmon in the Kootenai River. The opinion outlines operations at the dams to encourage sturgeon spawning, as well as improved rearing habitat.

In addition, the FWS opinion establishes minimum upriver flows for bull trout, and calls for studies to determine the extent of bull trout use of the lower Columbia and Snake river dams in the federal hydropower system.

Officials estimate that power generation from the region's dams will be reduced by an average of 59 megawatts as a result of the conservation strategy. Officials say that because of the reduction, the region's power needs might not be fully met during low water years.

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Angling for huge Pacific salmon can be big business if the salmon stocks are restored (Photo by Gill McKean, courtesy Adventure Angling)
Still, the biological opinions that constitute the recovery strategy contain provisions to address "emergency energy shortfall situations," officials emphasize. Depending on the magnitude and duration of such energy shortfalls, a power emergency might be declared, and modifications might be made to hydropower operations, officials noted.

Federal conservation agencies would be consulted before any such modifications would be made, according to recovery strategy documents.

Environmental leaders say that while the plan is far from perfect, it warrants immediate funding and implementation while further improvements are sought.

Many environmental groups have warned that they may resort to litigation if the incoming Bush administration does not adhere to the principles embodied in the plan.

The multi-agency salmon recovery plan and additional background information is available online at: http://www.salmonrecovery.gov.