COLUMBIA RIVER - Columbia River salmon and steelhead will gain vital estuary habitat through a new partnership announced Friday between the state of Washington and the federal agencies that operate the federal Columbia River Power System.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Friday proposed a Memorandum of Agreement with the State of Washington that would direct another $40.5 million to protect and restore estuary habitat through 2018. The action nearly doubles estuary habitat funds, strengthening the federal commitment to listed stocks.

While local residents generally consider that the estuary ends at about Puget Island, federal officials define it as extending east to Bonneville Dam. Only two of the projects described in the memorandum are in the primary estuary. Both of these are in the vicinity of Chinook. A $600,000 tidal restoration is planned on the Elochoman River in Wahkiakum County.

A $1 million project slated for 2010 aims to replace a culvert under U.S. Highway 101, reconnecting the Columbia with an interior wetland near Fort Columbia. This would provide additional rearing areas for Chinook and chum salmon, while improving the food web for all estuary creatures.

A second, larger project would revisit long-term agency aspirations to remove the Chinook River tide gate and restore natural functionality to the interior system of wetlands and woods. No price tag and timeline have been attached to this plan, which has proven controversial in the past.

BPA is seeking public comment on the memorandum by May 4. It is available online at (www.salmonrecovery.gov).

"The Columbia River Estuary is critical to maintaining and growing our fragile salmon and steelhead stocks," said Gov. Chris Gregoire. "I am proud of our leadership role in strengthening the protection of our fish populations."

Phil Anderson, interim director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the department will work closely with local sponsors to identify and implement projects that restore tidal wetlands, reopen fish passage and take other actions to improve fish survival.

"This initiative will significantly increase the pace of habitat restoration in the Lower Columbia basin, which is key to improving the survival of juvenile salmon," Anderson said. "Other fish and wildlife species will also benefit from this additional commitment to habitat restoration in the estuary."

"We feel this is the right investment of effort and money, is a robust approach for addressing estuary habitat issues and makes good use of the Corps' environmental programs," said Brig. Gen. William E. Rapp, Northwestern Division commander. "This agreement helps assure we will deliver collaboratively developed, scientifically based improvements for fish."

Scientists have increasingly recognized the estuary as a critical nursery for juvenile salmon from all of the Columbia Basin's 13 listed stocks as they migrate to the ocean. Collaborative talks directed by U.S. District Judge James Redden focused more attention on the estuary and led the agencies, states and tribes to identify extra steps that will bolster fish habitat.

In a court hearing on the case early last month, Redden questioned whether the proposed dam mitigation efforts in the estuary are sufficient. He asked whether federal agencies have a back-up plan in case the habitat restoration efforts do not produce the expected survival benefits to listed fish.

He is now poised to rule on a third proposed plan - the 2008 Biological Opinion for the Federal Columbia River Hydropower System - and has taken a keen interest in the role of the estuary in aiding salmon survival.

The memorandum would almost double the $49.5 million the federal agencies had already dedicated to estuary habitat over the 10-year course of the 2008 Biological Opinion for the Columbia River hydropower system, boosting funding to unprecedented levels.

It takes advantage of Corps cost-sharing programs for habitat improvements. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife will apply BPA funds, provided by ratepayers, to leverage matching federal appropriations, which the Corps will seek from Congress.

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