New Columbia Basin biological opinion keeps dams in place

NOAA Fisheries issued a final biological opinion for operating the Columbia Basin hydropower system May 5, declaring that breaching four lower Snake River hydropower dams is not necessary to protect and recover threatened salmon stocks.

U.S. District Judge James Redden voided NOAA Fisheries’ previous �biop,� the 2004 opinion, which found “no jeopardy” to salmon and steelhead listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Should the new opinion fail to meet his expectations, Redden has warned he could order agency actions that might include removal of the Corps of Engineers dams, 634.6-MW Ice Harbor, 810-MW Little Goose, 810-MW Lower Granite, and 810-MW Lower Monumental.

NOAA Fisheries informed the court it completed the 2008 biop and indicated it would provide a courtesy copy of the opinion to the judge. The biop is final and, barring litigation, does not require the judge’s approval, NOAA Fisheries spokesman Brian Gorman said.

�We have done what the judge has told us to do,� he said.

NOAA Fisheries said breaching all four lower Snake River dams could, at best, help four of 13 listed salmon and steelhead species in the Columbia River Basin. However, it added, breaching the dams would adversely affect navigation, cultural resources, and recreation.

Dam breaching also would result in a loss of power generation and could increase environmental effects due to carbon emissions from non-hydro replacement power. Additionally, authorization and funding for breaching would require congressional approval.

Based on the best scientific information available, the biop states biologically it is not necessary to include dam breaching as a reasonable and prudent alternative.

It noted a Corps of Engineers analysis concluded dam breaching could take ten years to implement, once authority and funding were in place. The Corps also said it could take 20 years for breaching to provide a benefit to fish.

NOAA said it made important changes to make the biop �more robust� since its public release of a draft document in October 2007. It noted the new document includes a strengthened climate change section, which looks at climate shifts and their likely effect on salmon. The new biop also considers the effects of hydropower operations on killer whales and green sturgeon to make sure that those species are not adversely affected by salmon protection.

Proposed agreements between U.S. agencies and Columbia River Basin tribes announced in April could help set aside the idea of breaching the dams for ten years. (HNN 4/10/08) The proposals call for Bonneville Power Administration, the Corps, and the Bureau of Reclamation to make $900 million available to the tribes to restore fish, particularly Columbia River Basin salmon and steelhead.

Environmental group criticizes final biop

Members of the environmentalist dam removal lobby are critical of the final biop, as they were of the draft biop, because the opinion did not consider dam removal. American Rivers issued a statement May 5 calling dam removal �a necessary part of an effective salmon recovery package.� It added dam removal could be done in a way that works for local communities.

American Rivers complained the final plan fails to analyze salmon survival gains that would come from removing the four lower Snake River dams. It added the plan provides only superficial treatment to the effect of global warming on endangered salmon runs in rivers and in the ocean.

�It is time for new leadership and news solutions,� American Rivers said. �At a time when the west coast’s salmon fishery is being declared a failure, and our rivers and salmon are increasingly stressed by the impacts of global warming, we need creative and bold ideas that will move us beyond the unacceptable status quo embodied by the Bush administration’s salmon plan.�

Appeals court upholds decision to void 2004 biop

In April, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected an appeal brought by the state of Idaho that sought to reinstate the 2004 biop voided by Redden. (HNN 8/3/07) The 2004 biop found operation of 14 Columbia and Snake river hydro projects did not jeopardize ESA-listed salmon.

Idaho unsuccessfully argued Redden’s ruling conflicted with a U.S. Supreme Court decision, National Association of Homebuilders v. Defenders of Wildlife. In that 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court overturned the 9th Circuit and declared the ESA’s �no jeopardy� requirement applies only to discretionary agency actions, and does not govern actions an agency is required by statute to undertake.

Idaho had argued that the Corps and BuRec are directed by Congress to manage 14 Columbia Basin facilities and have no authority to disregard the congressional directive. The state also argued that the Homebuilders ruling unequivocally held that the ESA does not supply the authority to disregard the directive.

In upholding the voiding of the 2004 biop, the 9th Circuit said Congress imposed broad mandates, rather than directing the agency to take specific actions. The appeals court added agencies are capable of simultaneously obeying ESA Section 7 consultation and those mandates.

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