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Draft BiOp Goes Public, Gaps and All

by Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter, September 21, 2004

The particulars of the new draft BiOp hit the streets Sept. 9, a week after NOAA Fisheries regional administrator Bob Lohn announced the new analysis found that proposed hydro operations will not jeopardize the ESA-listed stocks. A 30-day comment period to solicit input from states and tribes has now begun, with a final document expected by the end of November.

Lohn gave Northwest Power and Conservation Council members a heads-up phone call Sept. 9 explaining how the analysis has changed from the earlier BiOp. He said that data gathered on fish survival over the past 10 years has allowed his agency to differentiate between the effects on fish from dam operations and the existence of the dams. And that, in turn, has given the next BiOp a new focus.

"Legally, what we are focused on--as Judge Redden's opinion clearly directs us to do--- we're focused specifically on the effects we're being asked to consult on," Lohn said at a press conference later that morning.

Lohn said that large improvements in fish runs over the past few years have led the agency to conclude that none of the listed stocks are in danger of going extinct in the near-term and that Snake River stocks could recover with the four lower Snake dams in place.

The new analysis estimated the differences in fish survival between a "reference" operation of the hydro system run with few constraints on the one hand, and the proposed actions on the other, which have essentially been the same since the last BiOp came out in 2000, Lohn said. The difference has allowed the feds to change the environmental baseline and develop a new goal for fish survival of each major stock, to reach the same survival standard estimated from the reference operation.

One of the greatest changes over the last BiOp is the new emphasis on "normative passage," the idea of using removable spillway weirs at all eight dams similar to the one tested at Lower Granite Dam, Lohn said. Another RSW will be in operation by next spring at Ice Harbor Dam.

But the BiOp's focus on dam operations doesn't mean the federal government is reducing salmon recovery efforts. Lohn said his agency remains committed to an approach that includes improvements in hatchery operations, harvests, and habitat with federal spending in these arenas expected in the $6-billion range over the next 10 years.

The BiOp is only a part of the overall salmon recovery picture, Lohn noted, with the Council's subbasin planning effort an important foundation of the recovery effort.

Bonneville Power Administration chief Steve Wright said the proposed operations include all hydro operations in the past BiOp with one change--the reduction of fish transport during the month of April.

The summer spill issue remains an "open" question in the new draft BiOp, Wright said. The action agencies remain committed to looking at alternatives to summer spill with the same or better biological performance, and there will be an ongoing debate about spill through the finalization process of this BiOp, he said.

Wright said there have also been some changes of focus in the habitat area, with more attention being paid to the Wenatchee, Entiat and Methow stocks in the upper Columbia region because the BiOp analysis says they need more help than most other runs in the basin.

The NOAA analysis released last week shows that upper Columbia spring chinook exhibit about a 7-percent survival gap between the reference hydro operation and the proposed operation. The agency predicts the gap will be reduced to only 1.2 percent by 2010 with the addition of two RSWs at McNary Dam and other passage improvements at the four lower Columbia dams.

Big Gap For Fall Fish

Snake River fall chinook exhibited the greatest gap in the survival analysis, about 13 percent, but the draft BiOp says that should be cut by better than half by 2010, though the agency points out recent information shows that survival data is very sketchy for the fall stock. It has been determined that an unknown number of fall juveniles stay in the hydro system or estuary for a year before migrating to the sea. With benefits from transport still unclear, the BiOp says they may be under-estimated if some of these later-migrating fish are barged.

Snake River spring/summer chinook showed less than a 2-percent survival gap compared to a reference hydro operation. The feds expect that to be bridged altogether by 2010. Lohn said spill survival through the RSW at Lower Granite is 98 percent, a full five-percent better than the current route through the concrete and steel spillway.

However, using a RSW at a project like Lower Granite would route fewer spring migrants to barges, which could conceivably reduce overall system survival.

But Lohn said the value of transport was still up in the air, even for spring stocks. "At this time we have no good scientific basis for knowing the relative benefit of transportation versus inriver survival," Lohn said, noting that his own scientists say inriver survival could be anywhere from 50 percent to 150 percent of the survival of transported fish.

"Right now, the science does not support picking any place on that spectrum," said Lohn. "We just don't know."

Later, Corps of Engineers' spokesman Jim Athearn said it was true that RSWs could reduce overall system survival for spring chinook by about 2 percent by routing less fish to barges, but the Corps' plan to start barging two to three weeks' later (when water temperatures exceed 9 degrees C.) than the old BiOp called for, has the potential for increasing smolt-to-adult returns up to 50 percent for the 3 percent or so of the run that reaches Lower Granite Dam that early in the season.

Snake River steelhead stocks showed only a 0.2 percent gap, but upper Columbia steelhead evidenced a nearly 9 percent gap, which was expected to be reduced by 5 percent by 2010 with more help from tributary improvements and reduced bird predation in the lower Columbia.

Wright said NOAA's Lohn deserved a lot of credit for working with action agencies and creating an environment for putting together the new BiOp, but environmental groups rejected the new plan altogether. A "fact sheet" distributed by American Rivers rejected the plan on all counts, especially for limiting flows and treating dams as part of the natural river environment.

Earthjustice attorney Todd True, who led the court battle that toppled the last BiOp and led to this one, claimed the new BiOp disregarded sound science and the law. "As a consequence," True said, "it will hurt the people of the Northwest in the long run. Such an extreme change of directions is not just bad news for imperiled salmon; it is bad news for people, too. This administration was asked to take several reasonable steps forward toward long-term salmon recovery and instead they have taken pretty much every giant step backwards they could find."

BPA customers were predictably buoyed by the new draft BiOp. "This plan acknowledges the intense effort that the region has put forth for salmon," said Shauna McReynolds, spokesperson for the Coalition for Smart Salmon Recovery. "And it builds on the significant increase in adult salmon returning to the river."

The word from lower Columbia tribes was not supportive, however. Ron Suppah, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Warms Spring Reservation, said the draft plan "relied on measures ranging from absurd to speculative" and wasn't in keeping with the Court's directive. Tribal authorities said the RSW technology was promising, though largely untested, especially for fall chinook and sockeye.

Bill Rudolph
Draft BiOp Goes Public, Gaps and All
NW Fishletter, September 21, 2004

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