The state of Oregon and Bonneville Power Administration are closing in on a 15-year, $103.5 million agreement that aims to protect and/or restore at least an additional 16,880 acres to fulfill the federal agency's obligation to mitigate for wildlife habitat losses resulting from the construction of Willamette River basin dams.
The proposed agreement previewed Wednesday for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council would insure the provision by Bonneville of $2.5 million per year in fiscal years 2011-2013 and then $8 million annually thereafter through 2025. The funding would be used by the state to restore and protect "quality" wildlife habitat. The protections would come through the purchase of land or conservation easements.
"This is actually our first public discussion of this proposed agreement," Lorri Bodi, BPA's acting vice president for Environment, Fish and Wildlife, told the Council. She said her agency and the state hope to complete the details of the agreement and open a 30-day public comment period on the proposal Aug. 30 though it is still uncertain whether all issues can be resolved that quickly. The public process would include stakeholder meetings to discuss the settlement agreement and take comments.
BPA, which markets power generated at Willamette Project dams, plans consultations with potentially affected tribes – the Siletz, Grand Ronde and Warm Springs. It is seeking concurrence letters from the tribes as well as from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dams. The project includes 13 multi-purpose dams and reservoirs.
The Northwest Power Act of 1980 created the Council and gave it the mandate to create a program to protect, mitigate and enhance fish and wildlife populations impacted by federal dams built on the Columbia River and its tributaries. The Council program established standards for mitigating impacts stemming from, as an example, the inundation of habitat that had been occupied by wildlife.
Concurrence is also needed from NOAA Fisheries Service to assure that habitat projects benefiting salmon will earn credit for accomplishing goals of the Willamette Project biological opinion. The NOAA Fisheries BiOp outlines measures the agency says are necessary to assure that the dams avoid jeopardizing the survival of Upper Willamette River chinook salmon and steelhead that are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
After extensive negotiations BPA and Oregon settled on a compromise that would target the protection of 26,537 acres as mitigation for the dams' impacts on wildlife. To-date 6,699 acres have been protected and another 2,958 acres are near the end of the purchase pipeline with closure possible within the next month or two. ( For more information see: “Council Recommends Using $16 Million In BPA Funds For Willamette Habitat Acquisitions”
That would leave 16,880 acres to be targeted from 2011-2025. If the state is able to acquire more than 16,880 acres with the promised funding it will do so, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Chris Wheaton told the Council.
"We've assured them we'd bring them at least 16,880 acres," Wheaton aid.
The acreage total is a compromise. An ODFW assessment pegged the necessary mitigation at 34,282 acres while Bonneville's estimate was 17,791.
Melinda Eden, a NPCC member representing Oregon, noted that the negotiations were protracted because of the many complicated issues involved.
"This settlement is a long time coming," she said. "It represents substantial compromise. It's a good deal for ratepayers."
The process for developing an implementation scheme is ongoing. The state is engaging the tribes, non-government organizations, and other entities to develop criteria for judging the qualifications of projects proposed for funding through the settlement agreement. Wheaton said the new process will be opened to all that are interested.
The proposed agreement would require that at least 10 percent of the funding be spent on projects that have "dual benefits," helping both fish and wildlife. The fish species benefits must include at least one federally listed species and be coordinated with NOAA Fisheries Willamette BiOp habitat technical team.
"Unfortunately that's not a problem in the Willamette Valley," which is home to a number of listed species, Wheaton said.
Projects to be funded through the agreement must be consistent with the policies, objectives and strategies outlined in the NPCC's Columbia River Fish and Wildlife Program, as well as the Oregon Conservation Strategy, the Council's Willamette Subbasin Plan and, where appropriate, the Willamette BiOp.
* From A Few Fish To Thousands; Sawtooth Basin Sockeye Salmon Return Highest Since 1955
Sockeye salmon returns to Idaho's Sawtooth Basin have risen to the highest levels since 1955 when 4,361 wild fish were trapped as they headed up Redfish Lake Creek to spawn.
The trapping was conducted from 1954 thorugh 1964 as part of a Universit of Idaho research project.
The times since 1955 have been particularly lean with Snake River sockeye numbers so low that many feared the species would go extinct.
Between 1991 and 1998, only 16 wild sockeye salmon returned to Idaho and all were incorporated into a captive breeding program that was begun in 1991, the same year the stock was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
The Redfish Lake Sockeye Captive Broodstock Program, a multi-agency and tribal effort, was initiated to protect population genetic structure and to prevent the further decline of Snake River sockeye salmon. The program produces eggs and fish – both smolts and adults -- to reintroduce to the habitat to increase population numbers. The program, led by IDFG, is largely funded through the Bonneville Power Administration.
The program has helped produced -- with the help of improved freshwater migration and ocean conditions -- a surge in adult returns over the past three years. Between 1999 and 2007, 355 hatchery-produced adult sockeye salmon returned to the Sawtooth Valley.
But the count was 650 in 2008 and then jumped 833 last year. And already this year IDFG biologists have trapped 929 sockeye. That total includes 19 that were trapped at Lower Granite Dam on the lower Snake River about 400 miles downstream and transported for holding at Eagle Hatchery near Boise.
Another 910 were trapped at either Sawtooth Hatchery or in Redfish Lake Creek in the Sawtooth Valley. Most were transported 130 miles from the Sawtooth Valley to Eagle Hatchery, where in past years all trapped fish have been held so that biologists can determine which of the fish would be incorporated into the broodstock program and which would later be released into Redfish Lake to spawn on their own.
Given the relatively large numbers of spawners this year, the IDFG began setting free some of the sockeye from the Redfish Lake Creek trap so they can continue on their spawning journey. Of the total about 200 have been released back into the creek, which flows from Redfish Lake and its spawning grounds.
The rebuilding to the wild population is starting to build momentum. Of the 929 that returned to the valley through Thursday, 154 were unmarked, which means they neither carried identifying tags nor sported fin clips. That means they are the product of anadromous spawners returned to the lake to spawn naturally, "residual" sockeye that never left freshwater, or the outplanting of fertilized eggs.
U.S Sen.Mike Crapo of Idaho was on hand Aug. 11 to witness sockeye swimming up Redfish Lake Creek toward the lake for the first time in 20 years.
"It's a ray of hope," Crapo said, "A testament to the power and strength of this fish."
Crapo was one of several federal, state and tribal officials to visit central Idaho's high country last week to celebrate the large sockeye return. They gathered on the bank of Redfish Lake Creek for a hands-on experience with a fish that had almost disappeared from Idaho. It was in 1990 that the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes petitioned to list sockeye under the ESA.
"It isn't magic, but it is magical," said Ed Schreiver, the IDFG's fisheries bureau chief. "We're not here because of luck, but because of sound science behind the program."
The program has kept the fish's genetics intact for the time when river and ocean conditions would allow sockeye to rebound. The last several years have provided that opportunity.
"Salmon really are a resilient species," said Barry Thom, NOAA Fisheries deputy administrator. NOAA Fisheries is charged with protecting ESA listed salmon species,
"They really do want to reproduce. If we give them half a chance, they'll take it."
The IDFG estimates 1,400 fish will complete their 900-mile freshwater journey from the ocean up the Columbia, Snake and Salmon rivers to Idaho this year. A total of 2,137 sockeye have been counted this year passing over Lower Granite, the last hydro project they must pass on their way toward SawtoothValley.
Counts at Lower Granite have decreased to one or two per day recently. But upriver the pulse is still quite strong. Over the past week biologists have trapped from 22 to 47 per day, including 36 on Thursday.
"Seeing so many of these fish return for the first time in so many decades says to me that all the hard work and collaboration that has gone into saving them is working," said Steve Wright, BPA administrator. "It's now time to build on the success by expanding Idaho's broodstock program to further increase the numbers heading to sea and, ultimately, returning to Idaho as adults. This is proving to be an effective investment in our heritage and our legacy."
The number of sockeye that have returned the last three years is allowing biologists and agencies charged with recovering sockeye, to plan for true recovery by establishing a self-sustaining wild population, according to an IDFG press release. With the recent purchase of the Springfield Hatchery, the goal of producing upwards of one million smolts per year is in the early planning stages. This would mean a five-fold increase in the number of sockeye smolts produced and released for their journey to the ocean.