PORTLAND - NOAA Fisheries Service released two draft plans last week which assert that federal Columbia/Snake River dams and irrigation projects do not jeopardize the survival of 13 salmon and steelhead stocks that are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Accompanying the plans - which are officially called biological opinions or BiOps - is a "Supplemental Comprehensive Analysis" that charts how well individual fish populations are doing, along with anticipated gains resulting from proposed changes in dam operations, hatchery reform, habitat improvements and other actions.

These actions over the next 10 years "will not only prevent harm to threatened and endangered salmon, but will ultimately move the species towards recovery," according to a NOAA Fisheries press release announcing the release of draft biological opinions for the Federal Columbia River Power System and for multipurpose Bureau of Reclamation projects on the Upper Snake.

The draft documents call for "hundreds of millions of dollars of research" to affirm the projected gains in salmon and steelhead abundance, according to the press release.

The BiOps include analysis far more detailed and tailored to individual fish populations than has been used before.

"Through this process, our understanding of the salmon lifecycle has increased dramatically," said Bob Lohn, regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries. "This rigorous scientific review provides us with a great degree of certainty that these actions will lead to salmon recovery."

The BiOps, replacing documents declared illegal in 2005 and 2006, "spell out an aggressive and comprehensive series" of actions aimed at mitigating for negative impacts on fish stemming from the Columbia/Snake hydro system and Upper Snake River projects, used primarily to provide irrigation.

The BiOps were built following a collaboration with Northwest tribes and states aimed at narrowing areas of scientific agreement on the course of action for reviving diminished Snake and Columbia salmon and steelhead stocks. The draft documents judge whether proposed actions by the dam operators, the Bureau and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, jeopardize the survival of those listed stocks.

"There is no single cause for salmon population declines and there will be no single solution," Lohn said. "The only course of action is a comprehensive plan coordinated with state, local and tribal partners. These BiOps lay the foundation for restoration."

The collaboration group worked exhaustively to resolve issues, holding more than 300 technical and policy meetings over the course of nearly two years, according to the press release.

"This process taught us that the commitment and resolution for salmon recovery have not diminished," added Lohn.

The new BiOps "raise the bar for determining jeopardy" in answer to a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that NOAA must judge whether the listed stocks have an "adequate potential for recovery," Lohn said.

"By the end of the decade we want to point at all of the ESUs and say they are significantly improved," according to Lohn. Some, such as Snake River sockeye and Upper Columbia steelhead, represent stiffer challenges, he said.

The analysis, he said, is "tailored to each of those 78 populations" that make up the listed stocks. The status of each was evaluated, and the type and level of needed mitigation identified.

The analysis also takes into account ocean conditions and climate change. For example, survival rates are judged on the assumption that there will be four years of ocean conditions that are favorable and 18 that are unfavorable for salmon survival over the next 22 years, which is a conservative assumption since history shows the ratio to be about 50-50.

"We think it's important that we don't assume the best," and calculate freshwater survival improvement needs based on a worst-case ocean survival scenario, Lohn said.

"Our focus has been on what you need" to do to avoid jeopardy and spur recovery, Bonneville Power Administration CEO Steve Wright said in answer to a question about the potential costs of the BiOps' implementation.

As marketer of the power generated in the federal system, BPA has an obligation to pay fish mitigation costs, which include changed hydro operations such as spill for fish passage - which represents foregone generating opportunity. Wright said no new cost calculation had been produced.

The new strategy's mix of action agency proposals and NOAA additions includes numerous changes, from the 2004 BiOp. They includes changes to hatchery operations, such as a requirement that the Winthrop National Fish Hatchery in central Washington adjust its broodstock management to produce fish more closely resembling historic patterns of Upper Columbia steelhead.

There is more prescribed spill in some cases, and less in others. Daytime spill at Bonneville Dam, as an example, will jump to 85,000 cubic feet per second as compared to the current 75 kcfs formula to test for juvenile survival improvements, according to the Corps' Witt Anderson.

The agencies also plan to curtail spill in August at four lower Snake dams after the number of migrants has dwindled. And if numbers pick up, the plan calls for a resumption of spill. Court orders have required spill at the dams through August during the past three summers.

Transportation regimes may be changed in spring, to reflect the most recent data regarding the survival of fish barged downstream as compared to being allowed to proceed in-stream.

The BiOps and associated documents can be found at http://www.nwr.noaa.gov/Salmon-Hydropower/Columbia-Snake-Basin/Draft-BOs.cfm.

The Columbia Basin Bulletin is an e-mail newsletter produced by Intermountain Communications of Bend, Ore., and supported with Bonneville Power Administration fish and wildlife funds through the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Program. Visit the Bulletin online at http://www.cbbulletin.com.

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