Has the Obama administration gone schizophrenic on salmon? Wild-salmon advocates who were disappointed when the Obama administration defended the last Bush Biological Opinion on Columbia River dam operations say that the government not only could have done better, it did better, just a few months back. They point to the government's recent Biological Opinion on operation of the Central Valley Project and California State Water Project as examples of what NOAA should have done here.
The California opinion looks at impacts on salmon and other fish in the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems, and on the Southern Resident Killer Whales (aka Puget Sound orcas) that eat some of those salmon. It is “better and I would say significantly better” than what the government has done on the Columbia, says Earthjustice attorney Steve Mashuda. It's “not necessarily a road map” for dealing with all the Columbia's particular problems, but it does address some crucial issues “probably in the best way we know how.” You can expect salmon advocates to use some of the approaches and some of the science that NOAA employed in California to attack what NOAA has done — or failed to do — in the Northwest.
Arguably, nothing much has changed scientifically or politically since the first Snake River salmon populaton was listed in 1991, except that there have been more listings, fewer salmon, and some shuffling of the political deck chairs. But there are two major new considerations: the acceptance of climate change coupled with the recognition that many spawning streams may become too warm for salmon; and the listing of Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKWs) coupled with a recognition that their survival is tied closely to that of chinook salmon, the whales' favorite food. The Central Valley BiOp prepared by the Obama administration takes both of those factors prominently into account. The Columbia River BiOp defended by the Obama administration does not.
The government's proposals for recovering salmon in California “stand out in stark contrast” to its proposals for the Columbia, says Mashuda. He finds the difference “most perplexing.”
On June 4, NOAA announced that it had “released its final biological opinion . . . that finds the water pumping operations in California’s Central Valley by the federal Bureau of Reclamation jeopardize the continued existence of several threatened and endangered species. . . . Federal biologists and hydrologists concluded that current water pumping operations . . . should be changed to ensure survival of winter and spring-run Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, the southern population of North American green sturgeon, and Southern Resident killer whales, which rely on Chinook salmon runs for food.” The agency was not recommending a cost-free approach, or one that had any chance of avoiding litigation. It observed that “changing water operations will impact an estimated 5 to 7 percent of the available annual water on average moved by the federal and state pumps.”
In the weeks before NOAA Fisheries formally embraced the Bush BiOp on the Columbia, groups of scientists wrote to NOAA chief Jane Lubchenko and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke urging a different approach — an approach much like the one they had already taken farther south.
A group of orca scientists including Kenneth Balcomb executive director of the Center for Whale Research at Friday Harbor, and Samuel Wasser, director, of the U.W.'s Center for Conservation Biology, focused on climate change and killer whales. Climate change models suggest that within a few decades, Northwestern and California weather will make some spawning streams too warm for anadromous fish. In general, higher places stay cooler, so habitat at the highest elevations will probably have the coolest water. As a long-term strategy for California, NOAA Fisheries told the federal Bureau of Reclamation to come up with ways to get fish into the habitat above Shasta and Folsom dams.
By contrast, the orca scientists wrote, the Columbia River BiOp, “fails to account for the impacts of climate change on Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead. While the BiOp generally concedes that climate change will likely affect Columbia Basin salmon, it also assumes that the Pacific Northwest’s climate conditions will be no worse than conditions experienced in a “base period” of 1980 to 2001. As you know, this assumption runs counter to the conclusions of scientific bodies ranging from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s Independent Scientific Advisory Board. . . . It also contrasts sharply with NOAA’s approach in the 2009 [Central Valley] BiOp. In fact, the 2009 BiOp employed detailed Snake River [emphasis added] climate scenarios to illustrate the range of potential consequences of climate change on California salmonids.”
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