Salmon: Will the feds ever get their dam act together?

In preparing a new Biological Opinion, NOAA asks stakeholders how to resolve longstanding conflicts between Northwest dams and salmon.
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In preparing a new Biological Opinion, NOAA asks stakeholders how to resolve longstanding conflicts between Northwest dams and salmon.

It's April, so once again, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is spilling water over Columbia River system dams, speeding salmon smolts on their way downstream. The spill is "voluntary," but since 2006, federal courts have ordered the Corps to spill water over the lower Snake River dams every spring. Three years ago, the Corps, the Bonneville Power Administration, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Northwest office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration proposed a shortened spill period, but after several scientific groups suggested that would be a bad idea, they thought better of it. The agencies have, at least for the time being, stopped fighting over spring spill.

However, there's no sign that the Obama administration has stopped fighting for approval of a Biological Opinion (BiOp) on operation of the Columbia River dams. (A Biological Opinion, issued by a regulatory agency such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, assesses the impact of some action on an endangered species.)

The first Columbia River system salmon population (Snake River sockeye) was listed in 1991. The feds have yet to produce a BiOp that can survive its day in court. U.S. District Judge James Redden tossed the last effort — basically an Obama administration repackaging of a Bush administration plan — in 2011. That document relied on possibly-fictitious habitat improvements to recover endangered salmon, and didn't even consider breaching the lower Snake River dams. Redden ordered the feds to produce a new BiOp by next January 1.

So far, people outside the government say they have no indication that the new plan will differ significantly from what has been found wanting in the past. But that doesn't mean nothing has changed.

Under NOAA's aegis, the William D. Ruckelshaus Center and Oregon Consensus are interviewing "stakeholders" — or, if you prefer, interest group representatives — about salmon and dams. People are being asked what the major issues affecting salmon are and how they'll know recovery when they see it; beyond that, the questions are about process. This marks the first time NOAA has solicited the opinions of interest groups — beyond the traditional insiders — about the longstanding regional conflicts between dams and salmon.

Logically, these discussions will figure into NOAA's preparation of a new BiOp, but that is far from certain. For now, the two processes are being kept apart. The new BiOp would shape operation of the dam system through 2018. The stakeholder process would help shape a discussion of how to operate the dams after 2018. This isn't exactly the fast track. The interviews won't wrap up until the fall. The BiOp is due at the end of the year. Presumably, no one expects the former to have much effect on the latter.

So, how are the fish doing, really?

The new BiOp may turn out to be a rehash of the old version that has already been rejected by the court. In fact, indications are that federal agencies are pushing for just that. The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), which has just welcomed a new administrator, has traditionally fought to maximize power generation and the revenue from power sales. Its main constituency, the public utility districts, would like it to maintain that focus. Salmon advocates hope it will change.

BPA has just come out with a statement that suggests salmon are doing very nicely under business as usual. The agency notes the significance of changing ocean conditions and the natural year-to-year variation in run sizes, but argues that overall, "runs of most Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead have increased since the first Endangered Species Act listings in the 1990s. Fish returns appear to be on the upswing." BPA strongly implies that without further changes in dam operation, the region is on the right track.

But how well are the fish really doing? Fish advocates will tell you that they're not doing well at all. Commenting on the BPA statement, Joseph Bogaard of Save Our Wild Salmon says the bottom line is that "75% of the fish returning, on average, are hatchery salmon and steelhead. BPA and [the coalition of public utilities, ports, industries and farm bureaus known as Northwest] River Partners love to talk about record returns," Bogaard says, "but note that BPA does not back up the claim with any real numbers.

"BPA and the Corps herald 'at-dam survival' by smolts," he continues. "This is a convenient metric for them. But why not include mortality in the reservoirs too? Or the cumulative impact through the entire gauntlet of dams? Or account for delayed mortality? Or the smolt-to-adult ratio — the true measure of sustainability for salmon and steelhead?" The bottom line: "No ESA-listed populations are anywhere near what is required to de-list."

Asked about the BPA statement, Earthjustice attorney Steve Mashuda says he's heard that message before. So often, in fact, "I've stopped noticing." He notes that "[BPA] has been focusing on fall chinook a lot," because the numbers look pretty good, but " the spring numbers aren't that great."

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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.