The latest government plans to restore spring-summer chinook and steelhead that spawn in the Snake River Basin “will not get us to recovery,” a report by NOAA Fisheries states.
But federal scientists are more confident about a new road map to save Snake River fall chinook, which they believe can be self-sustaining in the future despite dams, predators, pollution and other threats.
NOAA Fisheries issued recovery plans for the three threatened fish Tuesday that detail what needs to be done to take them off the protected list under the federal Endangered Species Act. The plans include measures such as controlling sea lions and other predators, eliminating barriers the fish face while traveling and reducing the effects of interbreeding with hatchery fish.
The new plans advise improving migration through eight dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers, but stop short of calling for the removal of four Lower Snake dams. They raise questions about how Snake River salmon will fare in a time of climate change.
“We believe we have the best set of actions, but there are a lot of things we don’t know,” said Rosemary Furfey, NOAA salmon recovery coordinator. “The plan is adaptable to new information.”
The plans are important because they detail the federal government’s strategy to recover fish that feed the Northwest, provide jobs and play a special role in the culture of the region’s tribes. Recovery also has ramifications for the Northwest’s hydropower network, and for many electrical ratepayers who help fund the Bonneville Power Administration’s work to restore the fish.
Fall chinook, whose numbers dropped to 78 returning fish in 1990, have risen to 50,000 in recent years, including hatchery-raised and wild salmon. Its recovery plan said fall chinook could be self-sustaining without re-establishing a population above Idaho Power’s Hells Canyon dams. But such a step would improve the resiliency of the species, the plan states, and could reduce the risk that its fate would reverse.
The plans provide a road map for recovery but carry less regulatory clout than biological opinions issued by NOAA about activities conducted or controlled by federal agencies — such as operating the dams or managing fish harvest and hatcheries. The federal dam biological opinions have been repeatedly challenged in court by sportsmen, environmental groups, the state of Oregon and the Nez Perce Tribe.
In May 2016, U.S. District Judge Michael Simon ordered the Army Corps of Engineers, the BPA and the Bureau of Reclamation to spill more water over the eight dams to aid salmon migration to the Pacific, and to do a new environmental review of dam operations, which he said must include a study of breaching the four Lower Snake dams. That work is expected to be finished by 2021.
The recovery plans will be altered based on the findings of that review, Furfey said.
Tuesday’s plans include a brief analysis that predicts breaching the dams would shorten the travel time for salmon smolts, make it harder for predators to catch them and eliminate dissolved gas that can kill salmon at high levels. But it says salmon would no longer be placed in barges for transport down river — removing a controversial tool for aiding migration — and the fish would face uncertain sedimentation and temperature issues in the river after breaching.
The plans also include analysis of how climate change will affect salmon, and present strategies and projects to help the most vulnerable salmon survive rising river temperatures, reduced snowpack and earlier runoff. Spring-summer chinook face the toughest future since juveniles spend the first summer of their lives in increasingly warmer tributaries.
Projects to plant trees and other cover that would shade the rivers and reduce temperatures are already in the hopper, NOAA officials said.
Ritchie Graves, NOAA Fisheries chief for the Columbia River hydro program, said productivity for spring-summer chinook and steelhead will have to rise 30-40 percent to put the fish on the road to recovery that fall chinook are on now.
“We are losing 20 to 25 percent of the juveniles from Lower Granite Dam to McNary Dam,” Graves said. “What we don’t know is if we remove one or more dams, how does that change?”
At the heart of the scientific debate is how much “latent mortality” occurs to salmon from the stress or timing of their migration through the dams.
The independent Fish Passage Center, the state of Oregon and the Nez Perce Tribe say such deaths are common and a significant factor in juvenile survival. On the other side, the Army Corps and the BPA used to dispute latent mortality even existed. Today they acknowledge that it is a factor, but aren’t convinced it’s serious.
Eventually NOAA and perhaps Judge Simon will resolve the issue.
Idaho Power’s dams
The issue of reintroducing fall chinook upstream of the Hells Canyon dams has divided Oregon and Idaho and complicated Idaho Power’s 12-year efforts to relicense the three dams, which produce enough electricity to power the Treasure Valley. Most agree the water quality of the Snake River is not currently good enough to support salmon in the stretch from Swan Falls Dam near Kuna to Weiser.
Oregon and several Indian tribes want Idaho Power to try a pilot program at an Oregon tributary to see whether it is possible to get the salmon above Hells Canyon, Oxbow and Brownlee dams. If fish managers choose this strategy, recovery would take longer, according to Tuesday’s plans. But the chinook would receive another layer of safety with a second population. And the risk would drop that once delisted, it would go back on the endangered species list.
The Snake River historically accounted for 40 percent of all salmon that spawned in the Columbia watershed. Dams, pollution, overfishing and water diversion for irrigation cut off habitat and reduced the number and genetic diversity of salmon in the basin.
An earlier recovery plan said Snake River sockeye, the most endangered salmon in the Columbia, also needed improvements outside of Idaho to reach recovery. This year, unusually poor conditions in the Pacific hurt all of the region’s salmon and steelhead runs.
NOAA officials said they expect the runs to be down during the next two years as a result.
“If you get a bad string of poor ocean condition years, they’d all be in trouble,” Graves said. “We don’t think it’s going to happen.”