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Commentaries and editorials

Proposal Makes Hydro
Part of Environmental 'Baseline'

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - April 9, 2004

The head of NOAA Fisheries' Northwest Salmon Recovery Division balked when asked to detail the proposal Wednesday but acknowledged that his agency might judge the effects of federal hydrosystem operations on salmon from a different vantage point than it has in the past -- one that considers the dams and reservoirs a part of the landscape or "environmental baseline."

NOAA assistant regional administrator Rob Walton told the Northwest Power and Conservation Council that the agency offered a possible new approach to weighing the jeopardy posed to fish that would "consider the existence of the dams and the reservoirs in that environmental baseline."

When asked by Washington Council member Tom Karier to explain the proposal, Walton declined. He said NOAA and others involved in discussions of the proposal Endangered Species Act jeopardy analysis wanted to avoid public airing that would prompt a "debate in the press" about the controversial proposal.

NOAA presented the draft approach to considering hydrosystem effects and the jeopardy analysis during recent "scoping" meetings held by NOAA with state and tribal fish managers. The meetings are part of a "collaborative" effort set up by U.S. District Court Judge James A. Redden to allow better state and tribal participation as NOAA modifies its biological opinion on Federal Columbia River Power System operations.

Redden in May 2003 declared the reigning NOAA BiOp illegal under the ESA because it improperly relies on certain fish mitigation measures in making its conclusion that hydro operations did not jeopardize the 12 Columbia River basin salmon stocks that are ESA-listed. He remanded the BiOp to NOAA and ordered the deficiencies he cited be corrected, leaving the document's provisions in place in the meantime.

NOAA took the opportunity to also update the science underpinning the BiOp it released in December 2000. The sharing of data and consideration of state and tribal scientific input is focused in five areas -- hydrosystem effects, dam passage, the role of hatchery programs in off-site mitigation, habitat off-site mitigation potential, and the potential framework for application of the jeopardy standard.

The proposal to start from a different environmental base emerged from NOAA's reconsideration of the BiOp's provisions, Walton said.

"Under this new framework the existence of the dams and non-discretionary operation (i.e. flood control operations) would be included in the environmental baseline," according to memo prepared for the NPCC by staffer Bruce Suzumoto. "The 'action' in the effects analysis would consider only the operation of the hydrosystem with the dams in place."

"The operation of the hydrosystem would be evaluated as to whether the net effects to fish survival is appreciable enough to push the listed species into jeopardy," Suzumoto wrote. "Under this new framework the FCRPS is not necessarily required to ensure the recovery of the listed populations, but instead only responsible for the part its operation plays in moving the stocks toward jeopardy."

Suzumoto identified three key technical issues: what is the appropriate environmental baseline; what is the net effect that the operation of the FCRPS has on fish survival, and what is the appropriate jeopardy standard.

The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, with participation of plaintiffs in the lawsuit, is working on a critique of the proposal, according to Earl Webber of CRITFC. The lawsuit challenging the 2000 BiOp was filed by a group of conservation and fishing groups against NOAA. The states of Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington and CRITFC's four member tribes are among the host of entities that have since become official participants in the lawsuit. Those tribes -- the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama -- have sided with the plaintiffs in the case.

Suzumoto's memo said that state and tribal co-managers "have expressed serious reservations about the new framework.."

Walton told the Council that he expected the scientists and attorneys involved the process would keep the states apprised of the evolution of the proposed framework and other scientific issues being discussed in the collaborative process. The NPCC is comprised of two members each appointed by the governors of the four Northwest states.

The Council is directed by the Northwest Power Act of 1980 to prepare a program to protect, mitigate and enhance fish and wildlife of the Columbia River Basin affected by hydropower dams while also assuring the region an adequate, efficient, economical and reliable power supply.

A legal challenge to the 2000 BiOp filed last fall by the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association calls for such a separation of the FCRPS and the operation of the system in the jeopardy analysis. "The actual 'effects of the action' from discretionary choices as to how to manage the Federal Columbia River Power System are tiny and have no measurable effect on extinction risks to Columbia Basin salmon populations," according to a July 2003 press release threatening the lawsuit.

The lawsuit filed in September says federal hydrosystem actions, such as the Corps smolt barging program, when judged alone, amount to improved overall survival.

NOAA Fisheries is charged under the ESA with producing an opinion "as to whether the action, together with cumulative effects, is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of listed species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of critical habitat." That action is described by the federal action agencies -- the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration. The Corps and Bureau operate the FCRPS dams; BPA markets the power generated in the system.

Barry Espenson
Proposal Makes Hydro Part of Environmental 'Baseline'
Columbia Basin Bulletin, April 9, 2004

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