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Commentaries and editorials

Salmon War Surfaces
at Boise Fish Conference

by Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter, October 24, 2005

Venerable Idaho fisheries scientist Don Chapman once said that when you threaten to take away someone else's water in Idaho, you run the risk of getting "gut shot."

Chapman, who spent most of his career studying various aspects of fish survival for Northwest utilities, may be risking the same fate after threatening to take away someone else's dams when he called for breaching the four lower Snake dams at a conference in Boise.

He was one of six panelists who discussed the future of salmon recovery at the conclusion of a two-day symposium in Boise sponsored by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council and the Idaho Council on Industry and the Environment.

Topics discussed at the Oct. 4-5 meeting included hydro operations, hatcheries, hydro litigation, water flows and fish survivals, economics, and dueling data.

First raising the specter of global warming and its adverse affects on future fish runs in a newspaper interview last month, Chapman said Idaho's wild fish will need all the help they can get when global temperatures go up and the fish, especially the state's famous wild steelhead, will have to adjust to severely compressed spawning and rearing habitat. "Assuming society wants to save them," Chapman said, the stocks would need higher survival rates than they have now.

He also called for a reduction in mixed-stock fisheries that catch too many of them, including harvests by lower Columbia tribes. He said a tribal fishery could be developed that spares ESA-listed stocks at Bonneville Dam by sorting fish electronically as they pass the dam.

Chapman was passionate in his description of the unique nature of the wild fish and was critical of recent "record runs," which he said weren't records at all, because they were mainly composed of hatchery fish. He also took issue with the recent attempt in Congress to gut the ESA and the "silly attempt" to end funding of the Fish Passage Center.

Besides dam breaching, which several other panelists said was "out of the realm of possibility," the most contentious topics seemed to be related to flows and fish harvest.

With the Sept. 29 announcement by environmental groups that they will seek to merge the biological opinions on upper Snake and lower Snake operations, Idaho water users were quick to characterize the action as a way to use a friendly judge to wrestle more water from farmers who rely on projects run by the Bureau of Reclamation.

NOAA Fisheries and the Bureau of Reclamation released the upper Snake BiOp last March, and their analysis of the storage projects found that none of the water stored there was needed for fish migration by listed stocks downstream.

Boise attorney Scott Campbell, who represents water users, said if environmental groups file a supplemental complaint there will be a new fight "to the death," and he promised a cross claim against NOAA Fisheries that would address the taking of endangered fish in the harvest sector.

Rebecca Miles, chair of the Nez Perce Tribe, said war was always the last resort for her tribe, but if the lawsuit by environmental and fishing groups threatens the recent agreement over Snake River Basin water, the tribe would go to court to keep it in place. "It's time to take a fresh look at what the SRBA achieved," she told the group.

The agreement calls for an additional 60 kaf of upper basin water to be used for fish flows, in addition to the 427 kaf that Idaho already gives up every year to aid fish migration in the lower Snake. About half that amount must be purchased from willing sellers, said Jim Yost, natural resource advisor to Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne.

"The reality is," said attorney Campbell, "I have worked, and my clients have worked, over five and a half years, against the Nez Perce Tribe, and then with the Nez Perce Tribe, to form an agreement which all of us could support. It got through Congress, it got through the Idaho Legislature, it got the approval of a vast, disparate group of individuals and entities.

And now that very agreement, where cooperation and a future to improve habitat, to improve the circumstances of the resource, is in jeopardy because of the lawsuit in Portland."

Campbell said he couldn't understand how environmental plaintiffs could justify that. But environmental spokesman Tom Stuart, a board member of the Boise-based conservation group Idaho Rivers United, said the groups weren't out to get more water as their previous lawsuit tried to do, nor does it try to overturn the Snake River agreement.

Stuart said the new lawsuit simply wants the upper Snake and lower Snake BiOps to become one, "with a comprehensive baseline analysis from the headwaters to the ocean."

Campbell responded by telling Stuart that either he didn't understand the lawsuit, or one of the group's attorneys had misrepresented it. "Because, if you are saying your suggested supplemental complaint does not directly attack the Nez Perce settlement, you haven't read the Nez Perce settlement or you haven't read the lawsuit, because in fact, it does exactly that."

Campbell told Stuart that if the upper Snake biological opinion is set aside, "that is the basis for the whole thing to fall apart. If you and your attorneys perceive that somehow this supplemental complaint does not attack that, you're either completely misinformed, or you're lying. I don't know which, but one or the other applies."

Whether adding more water really helps migrating fish was discussed by another panel. The University of Washington's Jim Anderson explained that flows and survival, especially for spring chinook, may correlate at some low level, like those found during the drought year 2001, but there is scant evidence for any within-year benefits from flow augmentation.

Citing an analysis by his group, Columbia Basin Research, that was completed for Idaho water users two years ago, Anderson claims that fish survival correlates with water temperatures, not flows. As rivers heat up, so does predator activity, he says, and fish survival goes down. He said he has published a peer-reviewed article on the issue.

Ken Pedde, retired deputy regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation, presented a table that showed how much water it would take to increase water-particle travel-time by 10 percent in both the Columbia and Snake, the amount environmental groups had asked for to improve conditions for fish this summer. Pedde said another two million to three million acre-feet would be needed in the Columbia and 0.4 million to 0.6 million-acre-feet in the lower Snake.

To accomplish that in the Columbia, Pedde said, the extra water would have to go into storage, where "space may or may not be available." But it would involve putting water in a space normally reserved for flood control, which would increase the risk of flooding. Such storage could also have potential effects on power generation and for reducing flows to aid listed chum salmon below Bonneville and fall chinook at Vernita Bar in the Hanford Reach.

The threat of more lawsuits extended to the harvest area, where keynote speaker, Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, called for reducing commercial salmon harvests to let more ESA-listed fish return to native streams. He said the feds should look at the high interception rates of U.S. fish by Canadians off Vancouver Island.

The following day, that theme was fleshed out by Seattle attorney Eric Redman, who represents a coalition that has threatened to sue the federal government if it doesn't reopen consultation over the U.S./Canada salmon treaty. Redman said harvest rates in U.S. fisheries are also too high, and he called for reductions to U.S. non-tribal harvests, to cut the catch of listed salmon by using more selective fishing methods. He said tribes should be offered incentives to reform their fisheries as well.

Economic Study Pannel

The economic benefits of recreational fishing went under the knife when University of Idaho economist Jay O'Laughlin reported on his own analysis of a recent report released by Idaho Rivers United that said a restored fishery in that state could add more than half a billion dollars in economic benefits to the region.

O'Laughlin estimated that the economic benefits of a restored salmon and steelhead fishery would be similar to his estimate for the benefits in 2001, when large numbers of salmon returned to state waters. But it added up to about $50 million in income to the Idaho economy, an order of magnitude less than the benefits estimated by Boise economist Don Reading, in an analysis commissioned by IRU.

The market rate value of the power generated by the four lower Snake dams is about $350 million a year, according to BPA vice president Greg Delwiche, while actual revenues added up to about $250 million in 2004. He said about $50 million is spent on debt service and another $50 million in operations and maintenance costs for lower Snake fish mitigation, including hatcheries every year.

Fish and wildlife costs now make up 25 percent to 30 percent of BPA's total costs, Delwiche said, noting that a long-term solution to the fish recovery "challenge" must balance stakeholder interests. But a solution that lies in the political center of things may be hard to pull off. Delwiche wondered if stakeholders "were so relentlessly mean, vindictive and polarized, that those interested in solutions fear retribution for occupying a lonely, but sensible, centrist position."

Terry Flores, director of Northwest River Partners, a coalition made up of river users and BPA customer groups, reported on a poll her group conducted last May that found the general public was "not very aware" of salmon issues. Respondents were split nearly evenly on the question of whether fish runs were going up or down.

She said there was no consensus on how much the region was paying for fish and wildlife mitigation, with 43 percent of respondents saying that BPA's fish costs were less than 5 percent of its total expenditures, the reality is more like 25 percent to 30 percent. Most said they didn't want dams replaced by generating plants that used fossil fuels, and that solutions posed by environmental groups were too extreme.

Perhaps the most optimistic note was sounded by Corps of Engineers' biologist Rock Peters, who said preliminary results of 2004 and 2005 survival studies of juvenile salmon passage at Bonneville Dam show that spring chinook routed through either Powerhouse II, the bypass system, or the new corner collector showed higher survivals than passage via spill. His main caveat was that when fish passed through the spillway during the day, their survival was much less than at night, which was likely due to higher predator activity during daylight hours.

Bill Rudolph
Salmon War Surfaces At Boise Fish Conference
NW Fishletter, October 24, 2005

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