Critics Worry Salmon Plan is Floundering

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, June 24, 2003 (ENS) - There is no shortage of local, tribal, state and federal interests trying to restore wild salmon and steelhead to the Columbia and Snake Rivers. But despite the intense drive of so many to save these endangered fish, there is concern that this mass of efforts is not laying the foundation for long term restoration.

"Here we are again, trying to find the best path forward that will restore this incredible icon of the Pacific Northwest," said Senator Michael Crapo, an Idaho Republican and chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Water.

Crapo held today's hearing in light of last month's decision by U.S. District Judge James Redden ordering the Bush administration to rewrite the 2000 Biological Opinion that formed the basis of the federally-led plan to restore Columbia and Snake River wild salmon and steelhead.

The plan, which includes a slew of federal agencies, lays out 199 specific measures to be implemented over 10 years to protect salmon and steelhead from the adverse impacts of the federal dam system.

Redden, in a legal challenge to the plan brought by a coalition of conservationists, commercial and recreational fishers, and Indian tribes, ruled the plan violated the Endangered Species Act and that there was no certainty that the recommended actions in the plan would be carried out. The judge is currently considering a request by the coalition to vacate the biological opinion while the administration is formulating a new plan. leaper

Wild salmon are considered by many to be an irreplaceable icon of the Pacific Northwest. (Photo courtesy Columbia & Snake Rivers Campaign)
A decision to vacate the plan would lead to "chaos," said Bob Lohn, regional administrator of Northwest Region for the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and would have severe consequences for the federal agencies, the hydroelectric power system and the fish.

It would destroy the current operational certainty for the power system, Lohn told the subcommittee, and replace it with "institutionalized uncertainty."

"The reliability and economic efficiency of the power system would be damaged, with no clear benefit for fish," Lohn said.

NMFS is revisiting the plan as ordered by the judge and is "not just looking at patching up a few flaws," Lohn said, but the agency does not believe the plan should be scrapped.

"We are making good progress in most areas," Lohn told the subcommittee.

But many clearly do not agree with this assessment - and critics believe the plan is designed around a singularly unscientific premise: that these fish can be restored without breaching four dams on the lower Snake River.

"NMFS' 'non-breach' biological opinion appeared to the Nez Perce Tribe and all the other salmon managers in the Columbia Basin to be biologically flawed, " Nez Pearce Tribal Chairman Anthony Johnson said today. "And, while NMFS' biological opinion was billed as an 'aggressive non-breach' approach, upon closer examination it was clear that it was mostly hope and good intentions."

In light of the judge's decision, Johnson added, the four governors of the affected states - Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana - met earlier this month and pledged that breaching these dams is not on the table.

Balancing the desire for cheap power with efforts to restore the salmon is never far from the debate - these four states get some 80 percent of their power from hydro electricity.

"No one is an advocate of power over fish or vice versa," said Michael Bogert, counsel testifying on behalf of Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne, a Republican. "But all avenues need to be exhausted before dam breaching even becomes an option."

Still, the federal government's own science has shown that breaching the dams is far and away the most effective way to restore the wild salmon and steelhead.

And in a report last year, the Rand Corporation - a private, nonprofit research group - analyzed the potential impact of removing the four dams on the lower Snake River and found that it would cause some short term disruptions to some farming and other businesses, it would not have a major impact on the region's economy.

Johnson says that if breaching the dams remains off the table, the least the federal government can do is fund and implement the measures laid out in the 2000 Biological Opinion. dam

The Lower Granite Dam is one of four blocking migrating salmon on the Snake River.(Photo by Doug Thiele courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
He cited a report by the group Save Our Salmon, which was released in February and found that federal agencies received half of the funding required by the plan and accomplished less than 30 percent of the work. The estimated cost of full implementation is some $900 million annually for 10 years - in 2002, the Plan received some $439.8 million.

Lohn refuted that report, saying "it judged the Biological Opinion in ways that were premature and perhaps not fair."

Yet critics of the plan are convinced the fish are not getting the protection or even the water that they need - in 2001 and 2002, federal dam managers met the flow targets designed to protect migrating salmon and steelhead zero percent and 40 percent of the time.

Another concern repeatedly raised during the hearing was the role of the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), the federal agency that oversees 31 federal hydroelectric projects in the region, including dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

Established in 1937, BPA is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Energy, responsible for marketing wholesale power and operating and marketing transmission services in the Northwest.

BPA has a financial obligation to help with restoration efforts, but this has been under scrutiny since the plan was implemented as the agency wrestles with financial woes, rate hikes and the inherent unpredictability of water supplies.

BPA Administrator Stephen Wright told the subcommittee that the agency has been forced to raise rates some 46 percent since the West Coast energy crisis in 2000 and this has impacted its ability to fund fish and wildlife restoration efforts.

Last week BPA announced a draft decision to reduce regional salmon recovery investments to a maximum of $139 million annually through 2006, with additional cuts possible.

This is $100 million less than Northwest Indian Tribes estimate is needed, and critics say it is $50 million less than what BPA committed to invest when the federal salmon plan was released two-and-a-half years ago. Crapo

Idaho Senator Mike Crapo says funding and coordination of federal efforts to restore wild Columbia and Snake River salmon and steelhead have been lacking.(Photo courtesy Senator Crapo's office)
But Wright says the $139 million is "an increase of almost 40 percent over our direct program spending for fish and wildlife in the previous rate period."

"The issue that fish and wildlife interests have raised is the predictability of funding and that is fair," Wright said. "But there are some expectations for funding out there that are beyond our means to provide."

Wright points to signs that efforts to safeguard habitat and improve hatchery operations are paying off.

"Young fish survive their passage downriver at roughly the same rates as in the 1960s, when fewer dams were in place," he said, adding that there is evidence of rebounds in numbers of returning adult fish throughout the Columbia River Basin.

The BPA Administrator acknowledged that some of this good news is attributable to favorable ocean conditions but said that "it also reflects the combined benefits of efforts to improve juvenile fish survival, habitat, hatchery management, and harvest control."

Colonel Dale Knieriemen, deputy commander of the Northwest Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said that it is important to remember that the plan agreed to in 2000 laid out a 10 year recovery plan.

"Columbia River Basin fish restoration is more than a one or two year effort and we must remain committed for the ten-year period covered by the Biological Opinion," he said.

Crapo urged the federal agencies with the largest role in the salmon effort - BPA, the Corps and the Bureau of Land Reclamation - to work more closely with local, tribal and state officials on implementing the existing plan and on the revised version.

"I think we should be aiming to restore fish not just to ESA standards, but to abundant, self-sustaining harvestable levels," Crapo said.

That will be very difficult under the current framework, said Steven Huffaker, director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and a representative of the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority. The Authority, which was established in 1987 to protect and enhance fish and wildlife resources of the basin, represents 14 Indian nations, four states and two federal agencies.

Federal roles in restoration efforts remain poorly defined, funding is sporadic and inadequate, and responsibilities are not well coordinated, Huffaker said.

The Congress needs to look at what all the federal agencies - including those not closely tied to the Biological Opinion - as well as what state, tribal and local organizations to restore wild salmon and steelhead, Huffaker said, in order "to identify and clarify those roles."

"States and tribes have a lot of expertise and in many cases better data than the federal agencies have," Huffaker said. "We must allow states and tribes more access to the federal process of decision making."

Crapo pledged to the witnesses that he would fight for increased funding for the salmon plan and for improved coordination, even as its fate lay in the hands of a federal judge.

"It seems that one thing we should be doing is identify who the players are, what actions need to be taken, create a grid and then see what is being done," Crapo said. "We are not all working off the same piece of paper."