For better or worse, feds’ Columbia River Salmon plan stays the course

 

There’s no arguing that salmon and steelhead in the Columbia and Snake Rivers have had a tough century. Habitat loss, overfishing, and, most of all, dam construction have reduced the prodigious runs, which once averaged 16 million fish per year, to a fraction of their former glory. What’s up for debate is whether the federal government is finally taking adequate measures to protect the ones that remain.

sockeye_salmon_NOAA.jpeg
Sockeye are among the five species of salmon and steelhead that spawn in the Columbia Basin. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

That ongoing dispute was renewed this month with the release of NOAA Fisheries Service’s latest biological opinion, or“BiOp,” an assessment of whether the federal government’s plan for managing salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin is successfully protecting fish. By NOAA’s own admission, the 2014 opinion doesn’t much differ from its 2008 BiOp and a 2010 supplement, which a federal judge struck down in 2011 for their lack of specificity. In this latest court-ordered version, NOAA concludes its salmon plan doesn’t need an overhaul because its core conservation strategies – especially habitat restoration – are indeed staving off extinction for threatened and endangered fish. But salmon advocates complain that, while the status quo might be maintaining populations, it’s not recovering them; and that by not considering more aggressive actions, NOAA’s new BiOp consigns the Columbia’s salmon and steelhead to permanent jeopardy.

Conservationists and fishermen have long advocated for breaching the Columbia Basin’s dams – especially the four in eastern Washington that interrupt the lower Snake River, dams whose hydropower and transportation benefits are, they say, outweighed by their cost to salmon. Federal agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets the region’s hydropower, have for years fought to keep the dams in place. Nonetheless, in 2009, Ken Olsen reported in High Country News that, thanks to a new generation of politicians and fisheries administrators, dam removal just might be nigh. “There are signs that the balance is tipping,” Olsen wrote.


Fast-forward half a decade, however, and the balance remains untipped. In a 2011 ruling, U.S. District Judge James Redden instructed NOAA to consider “more aggressive actions,” such as removing dams and increasing spill – water allowed to flow over dams, rather than through turbines, to help juvenile salmon migrate downriver – in its next biological opinion. Yet the new BiOp actually rolls back spill in certain places, and doesn’t address dam removal – omissions that have drawn the ire of everyone from the Nez Perce Tribe to commercial fishermen. “The theory seems to be that if we do lots of little things, we can avoid dealing with the elephant in the room,” says Glen Spain, Northwest director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “And that’s the dams.”

NOAA officials and the opinion’s proponents say that aggressive approaches like increased spill are unnecessary, and that current measures appear to be doing enough for fish abundance already. “We’ve improved thousands of acres of habitat and invested almost a hundred million dollars in estuary restoration,” says Terry Flores, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, an alliance that represents utilities, farmers, ports, and businesses. “Last year we saw a historic return of chinook over the Bonneville Dam” – more than 1 million fish for the first time since the dam was constructed in 1938.

SpillwayBonneville.jpeg
Conservation groups want to increase the amount of water spilled over the Bonneville and other dams. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Visitor7.

But Joseph Bogaard, executive director of the conservation group Save Our Wild Salmon, doesn’t read too much into those numbers. For one thing, the chinook have benefited from favorable ocean conditions, including plentiful zooplankton, that won’t last forever. And just because fall-run chinooks (which aren’t listed under the Endangered Species Act) are surging doesn’t mean that the Columbia’s 13 endangered salmon and steelhead stocks are faring equally well. “None of the listed populations are showing that same growth,” says Bogaard. “Those fish might be stable, but they’re certainly not recovering.”

Greg Stahl, salmon program manager at Idaho Rivers United, points out that many biologists credit court-ordered spill for the strong chinook return – evidence, he says, in favor of experimenting with increased spill. He adds that while habitat restoration projects are certainly welcome, they fail to address the root causes of salmon decline in the way that spilling does. “In Idaho, the problem is getting fish from the ocean to the pristine habitat we already have,” he says. “Habitat restoration is like using aspirin to treat a brain tumor.”

Observers agree that, while no one’s filed suit yet, the new BiOp is a near-lock to end up in court. Bogaard calls the current system a “merry-go-round” of litigation: NOAA submits a biological opinion every few years; states and conservation groups sue; a judge orders the agency to produce a more thorough version; NOAA comes back with a document that fails to address fish advocates’ concerns. Lather, rinse, repeat – four times and counting. (The only wrinkle this time around is that Judge Redden, a famously outspoken critic of federal salmon management, has retired and been replaced by Judge Michael Simon, whose stance isn’t yet clear.)

To escape the litigious cycle, Bogaard advocates for a collaborative management process in which a broader collection of interests “comes in with all options on the table” – including, but not limited to, dam removal. Improved cooperation appears to have widespread support: in 2012, a NOAA-commissioned report found broad demand for more transparency, less acrimony, and stronger leadership – including a coalition of state governors capable of championing “a fresh direction and common vision for recovery.” (Flores counters that the current strategy already represents substantial collaboration, especially between the federal government and tribes, who in 2008 accepted $900 million in restoration funding in exchange for dropping lawsuits.)

Still, considering how contentious (and muddied by politics) salmon science can be, changing the process seems like a good place to start – even if it this particular plan is destined to appear before a judge. “The merry-go-round might be slowing the slide toward extinction,” says Stahl. “But real solutions involve bringing people together.”

Ben Goldfarb is an editorial intern at High Country News. He tweets @bengoldfarb13.

High Country News Classifieds
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
  • WASHINGTON DC REPRESENTATIVE
    Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Washington, DC Position Reports to: Program Director The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is seeking a Washington, DC Representative...
  • REGIONAL CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    Position Title: Regional Campaign Organizers (2 positions) Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Preferred Billings, MT; remote location within WORC's region (in or near Grand Junction...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....