The $500 million spent annually on habitat restoration projects and improvements are helping salmon, steelhead and other wildlife in the Columbia River Basin, federal agencies responsible for operating 14 federal dams say.
The Bonneville Power Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released a report Thursday outlining projects from 2007 to 2015.
“It says we’re making very good progress in bringing fish back to the rivers and improving the numbers of fish in the Columbia River Basin,” said Lorri Bodi, vice president of Environment Fish and Wildlife for the Bonneville Power Administration. “But we still have a ways to go to achieve our goals.”
The restoration work includes adding 3,000 miles of spawning and rearing habitat as well as 14 square miles of estuary habitat where young fish prepare to enter the ocean.
The agencies say the information will be used as part of a process for NOAA Fisheries to develop a biological opinion in late 2018 that will direct how the agencies operate the system to protect salmon and steelhead. Thirteen runs are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
The report also will be used in creating an environmental impact statement, or EIS, ordered by a federal judge in May. The court ruled that the U.S. government hasn’t done enough to improve Northwest salmon runs and ordered the environmental review that’s due out in 2021, urging officials to consider removing four big dams on the Snake River. A draft document is expected by late 2019 or 2020, Bodi said.
The Snake River dams are Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite are located between the Tri-Cities and Pullman. They’re the four lowest dams on the 1,000-mile-long Snake River, itself a tributary to the Columbia River.
Advocates for the dams say they provide many benefits, including low-carbon electricity, irrigation water and barge traffic, and should not be removed.
Todd True, a lawyer with the environmental law firm Earthjustice who represents some of the plaintiffs from the May federal court decision, said the information contained in the recent report is what the federal judge rejected in his decision.
The report “sounds like it’s part of the same public relations campaign that they’ve been conducting for some time now,” True said.
The report notes that starting in the late 1990s, a decade that saw runs being listed for federal protection, the 10-year average for adult returns of salmon and steelhead at Bonneville Dam has climbed from about 500,000 to more than 1.5 million.
The report also notes work done to improve fish passage at dams for young fish heading out and adult fish returning. The agencies say testing shows the dams are on track to meet standards of 93 to 96 percent average per-dam survival of migrating juvenile fish.
But True said that the cumulative loss with the four dams on the lower Columbia River and four more on the Snake River, plus additional mortality in reservoirs, means only about 50 percent actually survive the journey.
Bodi said the agencies are aware of the cumulative losses at dams and is why habitat improvements are part of efforts to increase fish numbers.
The agencies also note in the report recent work done to improve adult fish passage at the dams, notably installing systems that put cooler water in fish ladders to entice salmon and steelhead to continue moving upstream.
“Notwithstanding the judge’s ruling, we’ve made a lot of progress,” Bodi said.