Though the coronavirus pandemic threw our lives off kilter for much of 2020, it didn’t freeze movement of major developments in Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead recovery and other important fish and wildlife issues.
Just a quick perusal of the Columbia Basin Bulletin content posted in 2020 shows a newsworthy year despite the disruptions due to Covid-19.
This final week of the year I revisited this news and selected my Top Ten stories for 2020. No doubt others might select a different list but here goes:
1. Federal agencies produced a new environmental impact statement and biological opinion for Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead. The agencies determined there will be “no jeopardy” for the fish as they manage 14 federal dams on the Columbia and Lower Snake rivers, guided by these new documents. Supporters of the new EIS/BiOp say the documents represent a balanced approach in squaring multi-purpose uses with fish protection. Not surprisingly, other parties decried the documents as nothing more than “status quo” that has already been rejected by the courts numerous times. Soon after the signing of a Record of Decision, conservation groups and the state of Oregon announced their intent to again challenge the federal approach to salmon recovery in court.
2. As the EIS and BiOp were being released, talks began to heat up over whether there is a new way to do Columbia Basin salmon recovery – something other than battling in the courts. Can some new form of collaboration lead to the recovery of 13 species of salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act? The NOAA-led Columbia Basin Partnership issued a report with recovery goals. Northwest governors said they would use the partnership work as a guide to this new collaborative effort.
3. How much water should be spilled over the dams to aid migrating juvenile salmonids has been a contentious central issue of salmon recovery since the first ESA listings in the early 1990s. Barging vs. spill and all that. But due to a “Flexible Spill” agreement by agencies, states and tribes, 2020 saw more water spilled for fish than ever before. Most parties deemed the high spill a success for fish. But due to some Covid-related issues in doing fieldwork and monitoring, this year’s record-breaking voluntary spill for fish has no data for juvenile survival from McNary Dam to Bonneville Dam under this regime. And NOAA is concerned that with continued higher spill a better way for measuring survival at the dams will be needed. The agency points to the PIT tag detection system installed at Lower Granite Dam — the first system capable of detecting fish rushing with water through the spillway at one of the federal dams. If higher spill is the order of the day, NOAA says, the region should consider this system at all the dams.
4. So what’s worse for Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead survival: poor ocean conditions or the dams? Like spill, another contentious age-old issue. But in 2020 a new research paper that made headlines documented the decline of West Coast salmon stocks in rivers without dams, stressing the issue of poor ocean productivity. That of course sparked a debate over whether emphasis on the dams as the key source of Columbia Basin salmon mortality and low smolt-to-adult returns (delayed mortality) is misplaced or not. Which, in turn, has prompted the region’s Independent Scientific Advisory Board to take on the question next year, tackling one of the key issues vexing basin salmon recovery.
5. What can be more frustrating than watching marine mammals, birds, and invasive fish gobble up expensive native Columbia Basin salmonids? Talk about lost investment. But 2020 saw a significant change in controlling sea lion predation. States and tribes were granted by NOAA a much expanded authorization to kill sea lions, expanded in terms of locations and methods. This year also saw new urgency in getting a grip on expanding northern pike populations and cormorants.
6. One could make the case that the biggest future threat to Columbia Basin salmon recovery is climate change and the time to address it was yesterday, but today might still not be too late. Indeed, this year NOAA Fisheries put out a jarring study that said the coming warmer regime will likely reduce the survival of highly endangered Snake River sockeye salmon by about 80 percent from its already low levels. Also this year, the Environmental Protection Agency issued its “cold water refuges” plan for the mainstem Columbia River, while at the same time battling states over setting temperature limits on the river. Meanwhile, Oregon set up “thermal angling sanctuaries” to provide some protection to adult fish moving upstream, particularly the struggling Idaho wild steelhead. Washington state has yet to do the same on its side of the river.
7. Twenty years ago federal agencies began deliberations on impacts of the 13 Willamette River dams on wild chinook and steelhead. NOAA Fisheries didn’t complete a biological opinion until 2008. In that BiOp, the agency concluded that the continued operation of the dams jeopardized upper Willamette River wild spring chinook and wild steelhead. The 2008 BiOp’s reasonable and prudent alternative contained 96 measures to avoid jeopardy and adverse habitat modification that were behind schedule for completion. Those measures included structural modifications and operational changes at the dams and other Willamette Valley Project facilities. The BiOp also set deadlines for the Corps to carry out those measures. But in 2020 the courts had enough with delays. A U.S. District Court ruling charged the Army Corps of Engineers with not moving fast enough to ensure survival and recovery of Upper Willamette River wild spring chinook and wild winter steelhead, two species listed as threatened in 1999 under the federal Endangered Species Act. “Far short of moving towards recovery, the Corps is pushing the UWR Chinook and steelhead even closer to the brink of extinction. The record demonstrates that the listed salmonids are in a more precarious condition today than they were at the time NMFS issued the 2008 BiOp.” What the Corps must do is still uncertain.
— CBB, August 19, 2020, FEDERAL JUDGE RULES CORPS NOT MOVING FAST ENOUGH TO HALT CONTINUED DECLINE OF ESA-LISTED UPPER WILLAMETTE RIVER WILD SPRING CHINOOK/STEELHEAD; “SIGNIFICANT MEASURES NEVER CARRIED OUT’
8. And then there are the good news stories of re-introduction of salmon runs once extirpated. Coho salmon in 2020 returned to northeast Oregon’s Lostine River in record numbers almost five decades after the fish disappeared from the same basin. Once again the coho are supporting tribal harvest and a new Oregon recreational fishery. This is the result of reintroductions by the Umatilla and Nez Perce tribes and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife beginning in 2017. Biologists expect many of the fish to make it back to the Lostine River. This year is by far the largest return of coho salmon to the Grande Ronde River and its tributary, the Lostine, since their reintroduction. And the Yakama Nation this year received scientific approval by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council to move forward on a $41 million hatchery master plan that will allow the continuation of building naturally spawning salmon runs in the Yakima River basin. (Bonneville Power Administration funding is the next step.)
9. On top of trying to fish for salmon during a pandemic, 2020 gave us the worst Columbia River spring chinook return in 21 years. After a drop in the spring chinook salmon forecast and dire predictions that some hatcheries would not make broodstock quotas this year, the two-state Columbia River Compact in May shut down mainstem Columbia River fisheries. State fishery managers closed the river to chinook fishing from Warrior Rock to the Oregon/Washington border.
10. The 1980 Northwest Power Act directs the Council to, at least every five years, prepare, adopt, and periodically review a Columbia River Basin fish and wildlife program to mitigate the impacts of hydropower dams on fish, wildlife, and related spawning grounds and habitat. The Power Act also directs the Bonneville Power Administration to pay for projects that implement the Council’s program. That is currently costing the region about $243 million each year. After nearly two-and-a-half years of work, the Council this year adopted its final piece, Part I of the 2020 Addendum to its 2014 Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program. The current 2014 Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program remains unchanged, as the Council had determined that a complete rewrite of the Program would not serve the needs of the program over the next five years. Instead the Council added the Addendum. The 2014 Program will remain in effect and the two documents should be read together, the Council says. The program’s ambitious goal is to return 5 million salmon and steelhead to the Columbia River starting in 2025. Currently, about 300,000 wild fish listed under the ESA return annually.
Finally, worth mentioning are the widespread impacts in 2020 of Covid-19 and the September wildfires. The assessments of property and economic damage and delayed field work and research from these two significant events of nature – virus and fire – will continue well into 2021.
As for 2021, there are some emerging issues and changes for Columbia Basin salmon recovery that can be clearly seen. Major litigation over the new EIS/BiOp will dominate much of the year, as will some sort of effort at better collaboration among feds, states, tribes and interest groups. And we will see a new Biden Administration take shape, with yet another shift of political appointees at the top making decisions on the direction of regional salmon recovery and its funding and other important natural resource issues.
So hello 2021 and goodbye 2020. You will not be missed. And also not forgotten.
— Bill Crampton, [email protected]