The federal government on Wednesday reiterated its intent to work with the region’s tribes and states to respond to U.S. District Court Judge James Redden’s Aug. 2 order requiring a bolstering of habitat actions in the federal plan to restore Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act.
“We will be using the same collaboration approach we used with the existing biological opinion,” said Will Stelle, regional director of NOAA Fisheries. “We will work issues through the regional workgroup of states and tribes that has been overseeing the implementation and share information with all the parties. The judge’s order directed us to work with the sovereigns.”
The federal agencies outlined their position in a brief Wednesday with Redden.
The Department of Justice brief responded to plaintiffs’ comments on the 2010 annual progress report on implementation of actions to mitigate for the harm to ESA-listed fish resulting from the operation of the federal hydropower dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.
Redden this summer declared illegal NOAA Fisheries’ 2008/2011 BiOp for the Federal Columbia River Power System and ordered a remand during which the strategies flaws could be corrected.
NOAA Fisheries, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation are defendants in the long-running lawsuit. The Corps and Bureau operate the FCRPS dams in the Columbia and Snake river basins. Also involved as a federal action agency is the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets the federal power.
NOAA is charged under the ESA with consulting with the action agencies in the development of a BiOp that judges whether the dams jeopardize the survival of listed salmon and steelhead stocks. The 10-year 2008/2010 BiOp outlines numerous off-site actions, such as habitat restoration, that are designed to mitigate for FCRPS impacts.
Redden’s order said the 2008/2010 BiOp relies, beyond 2013, on unidentified habitat mitigation to avoid jeopardy.
He told the federal agencies to produce a new BiOp by Jan. 1, 2014, that relies only on actions that are reasonably certain to occur, a requirement of the law.
The judge ordered the agencies to continue implementation of actions in the BiOp outlined through 2013 and to continue working with the involved sovereign states and tribes to identify new mitigation actions for implementation. He also advised collaboration in identifying the level of benefits to fish provided by the mitigation actions.
“As our progress report shows, improvements to the dams have resulted in 95-99 percent per-dam survival rate for juvenile spring chinook and steelhead,” said Dave Ponganis, director of programs for the Corps. “The report also shows how our state and tribal partners are restoring streamside habitat, removing barriers to open up new tributary and estuary habitat, and putting water back in streams. As a result, salmon are coming back to places they haven’t been seen for decades.”
“This is important work, and we have made it our highest priority,” said Ponganis. “We will maintain a focus on implementation in the next two years as we work with local experts to respond to the court’s order.”
NOAA Fisheries and the action agencies say they are working with several watershed and expert-panel groups throughout the Columbia River basin and in the Columbia estuary to identify those projects.
“While the court’s order directs us to focus on habitat, the action agencies will continue to implement and adapt measures for dam operations and improvements, predator management and hatchery improvements,” said Stelle. “As the biological opinion calls for, they are addressing all the factors that affect fish survival.”
The agencies said that independent science reviews conducted by the Obama Administration and others have established that the federal plan is based on sound science. “In keeping with this, the habitat projects that are specified during the remand will be supported by independently developed scientific and technical information that will document their benefits to fish,” said the agencies.
(For more detailed information see CBB, August 5, 2011, “Redden Orders New Salmon BiOp By 2014; Says Post-2013 Mitigation, Benefits Unidentified” http://www.cbbulletin.com/411336.aspx)