March 2, 1995 in Nation/World

Final Report On Snake River Salmon Released Regional Fisheries Director Is Optimistic That Hydropower Opinion Will Stand Up

Julie Titone Staff Writer
 

FOR THE RECORD CORRECTION: The National Marine Fisheries Service’s opinion on spawning habitat will guide activities on eight forests in the region. Thursday’s edition wrongly stated the number of forests involved. Correction published March 3, 1995.

The National Marine Fisheries Service on Wednesday released its final opinion about how the federal hydropower system should be operated in order to save Snake River salmon from extinction.

At the same time, the Clinton administration said it will help Northwest electric consumers pick up the enormous tab for salmon recovery.

In a Seattle press conference, regional fisheries service director Will Stelle expressed optimism that the hydropower opinion - and a separate opinion dealing with forest habitat - would pass muster with two federal judges who will review them.

“If you’re a baby salmon in the Snake River, this is a good day for you,” he said.

The opinions issued were prompted by lawsuits. Unless overturned in federal court, they will immediately guide management of the Columbia river system and activities on 11 federal forests.

Then, the opinions will become chapters in the proposed Snake River salmon recovery plan. That will be released March 10 for public comment.

The centerpiece of the hydropower opinion is the release of huge amounts of water from upstream storage reservoirs to help young salmon reach the ocean more quickly in the spring.

That means the water can’t be released in the winter, when power needs are at their peak and energy profits are highest.

The biological opinion differs in several ways from the version released in late January. The changes were made to please the states and tribes that sued the fisheries service.

This opinion moves up to 1999 the fisheries service decision about whether lower Snake River reservoir drawdowns will be needed to save the salmon. That’s three years sooner than first planned.

It also calls for sending water over spillways at Lower Granite Dam when spring flows are high. Spilling keeps fish away from dangerous turbines. The draft opinion called only for spills at the seven other dams.

Lower Granite is significant because it’s the first dam young fish reach, and many are collected there for barging around the dams. Spilling keeps them in the river.

As a result of more spilling, fewer fish would be barged. Barging is less disruptive to hydropower and river transportation.

Stelle defended the two-pronged approach of more spilling and improved barging.

“Putting all of your eggs in one basket doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he said. ‘If you’re wrong, you’ve just kissed off those (fish) stocks in the lower Snake.”

Other issues raised included:

Costs: Bonneville Power Administration will get federal help in paying for salmon recovery. That will come in the form of credits against the annual debt payments that Bonneville makes to the federal treasury, said administrator Randy Hardy.

Bonneville may even reschedule its annual treasury payments. It also will cut other expenses to help pay for salmon, Hardy said.

The hydropower changes called for by the fisheries service will cost an estimated $160 million for the next five years. That comes on top of about $350 that Bonneville now spends annually on fish and wildlife enhancement.

The biological opinion is expected to raise residential power rates about $4 a month over the next decade. Companies buying power wholesale would see a 6 percent increase by 2015. Washington Water Power customers would not be affected.

Lake Roosevelt, Libby, Hungry Horse, Dworshak: The biological opinion calls for keeping a minimimum amount of water in upstream reservoirs to protect resident fish. Stelle said scientists will re-examine those limits to make sure they’re adequate.

Spawning habitat: The separate biological opinion is expected to settle a lawsuit brought by environmentalists. It will guide activities on 11 national forests that might harm streams where salmon spawn.

In its opinion, the fisheries service endorsed Pacfish, a sweeping plan for habitat protection adopted last week by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

It took Pacfish a step further, Stelle said, by targeting for special protection streams that are pristine or easily restored. “It’s much easier to save what you have than to let it go and try to get it back again,” he said. “That is at the heart of our approach.”

Judge David Ezra caused an uproar in January when he stopped logging, mining, grazing and other activities until the U.S. Forest Service consulted with the fisheries service on how forest management plans would affect salmon.

The injunction was lifted with the approval of the Pacific Rivers Council, which had sued.

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with story: Lake spared To the relief of North Idaho recreation businesses and lakeshore property owners, the summer level of Lake Pend Oreille will not be dropped in the summer to provide flows for salmon. Lowering the lake three feet as previously discussed would result in a relative dribble of water downstream in the Columbia River, according to Will Stelle, regional director of the National Marine Fisheries Service. In the winter, Pend Oreille will be kept five feet higher than usual, to provide some additional water downstream. That pleases sportsmen who think it will improve spawning conditions for the lake’s kokanee salmon. - Julie Titone

This sidebar appeared with story: Lake spared To the relief of North Idaho recreation businesses and lakeshore property owners, the summer level of Lake Pend Oreille will not be dropped in the summer to provide flows for salmon. Lowering the lake three feet as previously discussed would result in a relative dribble of water downstream in the Columbia River, according to Will Stelle, regional director of the National Marine Fisheries Service. In the winter, Pend Oreille will be kept five feet higher than usual, to provide some additional water downstream. That pleases sportsmen who think it will improve spawning conditions for the lake’s kokanee salmon. - Julie Titone


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