NOAA's Fisheries Service released today three interwoven "biological opinions" that represent what the agency says is the most comprehensive strategy yet developed to protect listed 13 Columbia River basin salmon and steelhead species and lift them toward recovery.
The documents are posted at: http://www.nwr.noaa.gov/Salmon-Hydropower/Columbia-Snake-Basin/Final-BOs.cfm
BiOps, a requirement of the Endangered Species Act, set benchmarks that other federal agencies must meet to avoid jeopardizing the survival of listed fish stocks. All three of the new BiOPs will be in effect for at least 10 years.
They replace, in two of the cases, strategies struck down in federal court -- NOAA Fisheries' 2005 Federal Columbia River Power System BiOp for 14 Columbia/lower Snake river dams and the 2005 Upper Snake river BiOp for 12 projects in eastern Oregon and southern Idaho.
A third set of documents outlines a plan for managing salmon harvests for Indian tribes in Washington, Idaho, and Oregon, and for those states themselves. It is based on a plan developed in U.S. v Oregon, a court-supervised process focused on treaty rights.
Each of the BiOps includes biological effects analyzed in the other two BiOps in making an assessment of whether listed stocks are jeopardized.
Bonneville Power Administration CEO Steve Wright said the new FCRPS BiOp would cost an estimated $75 million more per year to implement than the 2004 version. That has the potential to push up rates for BPA's preference wholesale power customers by 3 percent.
That rate increase jumps to 4 percent when the costs of new memorandum of agreements with four treaty tribes are added in. Those 10-year fish and wildlife funding agreements include a mix of measures, targeting ESA stocks and non-listed fish and wildlife. The ESA portion is included in the $75 million calculation.
The federal power marketing agency now has $600 to $700 million in annual fish and wildlife costs for ESA and non-listed stocks, Wright said. BPA has obligations to mitigate for impacts to fish and wildlife caused by the construction and operation of the federal Columbia basin hydro system. The dams are run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation.
"These biological opinions not only meet the law's requirement to protect fish, they also improve the prospects for recovery," said Bob Lohn, head of NOAA's Fisheries Service's Northwest region, based in Seattle. "In these opinions, we've taken a close look at all of the major factors --- the hydro system, habitat, hatcheries, and harvest --- and are making sure that they're all working toward healthy salmon runs."
Lohn praised the set of accords signed last week between the federal agencies that operate the dams and four Northwest Indian tribes, and the new relationship that the agreements represent. The agreements call for $900 million in spending over the next 10 years on tribal habitat and hatchery projects that are aimed at improving survival of salmon, steelhead and other fish.
"This is exactly the kind of joint effort that we need to get on-the-ground projects going and long-term improvements under way," he said.
Lohn said that the accords will continue the collaborative approach urged by a federal judge when he remanded the FCRPS BiOp, and later the Upper Snake BiOp, to NOAA Fisheries. The agency is charged by the ESA with protecting listed stocks.
Earthjustice attorney Todd True said that, at first blush, the new FCRPS BiOp appears to fail both legal and scientific tests. Earthjustice represents fishing and conservation groups that challenged the 2004 and 2005 BiOPs successfully.
"This plan looks like it does even less" than the 2004 plan, True said during a press conference held after the NOAA announcement. Earthjustice and its clients will decide whether again to take legal action.
"We'll look at this thoroughly and carefully and make a decision at that point," True said. "It doesn't look good."
He noted that three of the past FCRPS BiOps had been called deficient by the courts.
Federal agencies "have forgotten that if they want to do better they have to change what they're doing," True said. Many of the client groups have long pressed for removal of four lower Snake dams as the best way to improve survivals.
"We can remove the four lower Snake dams, restore a healthy river, bring back salmon and steelhead, protect farmers, invest in clean energy, and ensure a strong economic future," said American Rivers' Michael Garrity. "Dam removal is a necessary part of an effective salmon recovery package and can be done in a way that works for local communities."
Federal documents say it is "biologically not necessary to include dam breaching" as one of the BiOp's mitigation strategies. Also, the federal agencies have no congressional authority to pursue breaching.
"The 2008 FCRPS Biological Opinion supports a comprehensive, All-H strategy including continued fish passage improvements at the Snake River dams such as surface collection and bypass improvements, as well as offsite actions including habitat and hatchery improvements, to meet the needs for listed fish," according to a summary document. "This approach benefits not only Snake River fish, but also Upper Columbia and Mid-Columbia salmon and steelhead."
Jim Martin, a former Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife fisheries chief, said he felt the FCRPS BiOp improperly relies on "speculative" benefits from tributary habitat actions while ignoring what is "certain" mortality in the mainstem Columbia and Snake.
Others feel the NOAA approach is sound.
"We support this BiOp" said Glenn Vanselow, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association. "The region has focused on river operations for more than 20 years and the new BiOp and MOAs add much needed attention on habitat and hatcheries as contributors to recovery. This BiOp is a product of collaboration and we expect the region and, ultimately, the court to embrace it. It is time to end the debate and get to work on fish recovery."
The FCRPS BiOp includes mitigation proposed by the action agencies – BPA, the Corps and the Bureau -- as well as mitigation measures NOAA Fisheries believed to be needed to avoid jeopardizing the listed species. The additional actions are called a "Reasonable and Prudent Alternative." The FCRPS RPA contains 73 detailed sets of additional mitigation actions that are required to avoid jeopardy and adverse modification of critical habitat.
NOAA says it has made a number of changes to make the hydropower BiOp more robust since its public release as a draft document last October:
-- The new document includes a strengthened climate change section, which takes climate shifts and their likely effect on salmon into consideration.
-- The new biological opinion factors in the effects of hydro operations on killer whales and green sturgeon to make sure that those important species are not adversely affected as steps are taken to protect salmon.
-- The analysis supporting these opinions was based on the best available science and validated by several independent science reviews.
Throughout this biological opinion the agengy says it's approach has been to assure an extra measure of protection for salmon, especially when it comes to anticipating future conditions.