Right now, millions of salmon and steelhead smolts from Idaho are on the ride of their lives as they attempt to dodge hungry predators and other serious obstacles on their downstream migration to the ocean. But one thing the smolts won't have to contend with on their perilous journey is the curtailment of water spills over dams on the lower Snake River.
The spills were nearly halted this spring due to poor winter snowpacks in the mountains of Idaho.
Federal officials created an uproar on March 31 when they announced their desire to halt the spills over the four large dams dotting the lower Snake in southeast Washington in a filing with the U.S. District Court in Oregon. Under federal court order since 2006, officials have been releasing high flows through the series of dams to aid smolts originating in Idaho's sprawling Salmon and Clearwater river systems.
Regional fish advocates immediately went on the offensive. They say the spills are one of the chief reasons that Idaho has seen a positive turnaround in the number of returning adult salmon and steelhead over the past three years. In the Sawtooth Valley—a 900-mile journey from the ocean—the positive runs have meant exciting times for local steelhead anglers and the resumption of a rare chinook salmon fishing season.
Prior to 2008, anglers had been unable to fish for hatchery chinook along the upper Salmon River near Stanley for more than three decades. Fish advocates warned that an elimination of spills on the lower Snake could endanger the recovery of the region's iconic salmon and steelhead runs.
The fish advocates pointed to a February 2010 report from the Independent Scientific Advisory Board—formed by NOAA Fisheries and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council to provide independent scientific advice—that called for the spills on the lower Snake to continue.
In a surprising reversal Monday, the federal government chose to continue those spills on the lower Snake to aid Idaho's smolts. In papers filed with U.S. District Court, it signaled its intent to continue the spring spill operations in combination with barging to help juvenile salmon and steelhead migrate to the Pacific Ocean.
Idaho fish advocates couldn't have been more surprised, or pleased.
"Given the administration's track record, I wasn't all that hopeful," said Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United. "Now that they indicated they're going to do the right thing with spill, we can get back to the real issue of working to draft a scientifically and legally sound biological opinion."
The spills are believed to help young smolts by more quickly flushing them through the gauntlet of hydroelectric dams that slow their passage down the lower Snake. Those dams, the last of which were constructed in the late 1970s, are Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor. They're located downstream from Lewiston—where the Snake leaves Idaho at the state's lowest point—in southeast Washington.
Regional fish advocates and the federal government are still at odds over a 2008 biological opinion released by the Bush administration that spells out the steps for salmon and steelhead recovery on the Snake River. Litigants sued to have the recovery plan thrown out and replaced with a more fish-friendly version.
U.S. District Judge James Redden has repeatedly ruled in favor of salmon and steelhead advocates and sent the federal government back to the drawing boards. Redden recently gave the Obama administration three months to come back to him with a better recovery plan.
The recovery plan is required because Idaho's salmon and steelhead are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. The state's runs of chinook and steelhead are listed as threatened under the ESA. The imperiled run of sockeye salmon that spawns in Redfish Lake and other lakes in the Sawtooth Valley are listed as endangered.
Rather than fully rewrite the 2008 biological opinion for the Snake River, the Obama administration submitted an addendum to it. Unlike the original recovery plan, the changes at least mention the possibility that dam removal on the lower Snake could be considered if all other salmon recovery efforts have failed.
But Idaho Rivers United and other conservationists say that isn't enough and are pressing Redden to require the federal government to come back with a stronger recovery plan that makes dam removal a larger part of the discussion.
"It's time to return our focus to doing everything we can to recovering wild Columbia and Snake river salmon and steelhead," Sedivy said. "Increased spill is unquestionably part of that equation. And so is an honest and thorough review of dam removal."
A ruling on the Obama administration's recovery plan for Snake River salmon and steelhead is expected sometime later this year.
Jason Kauffman: email@example.com
A wild ride for Idaho's smolts
Idaho's salmon and steelhead smolts face a hazardous journey to the Pacific Ocean. While each species—steelhead and chinook and sockeye salmon—make the journey during the spring, the timing varies. Sometime in April, sockeye begin to head downstream on their 900-mile journey from Redfish Lake to the ocean. It takes the 2-year-old smolts only three to five days to reach Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River in Washington, more than 400 miles downstream. Meanwhile, Idaho's steelhead and Chinook smolts typically head downriver the fall before the main downstream migration. After holding in the larger lower end of the rivers where winters aren't as harsh, steelhead and Chinook make the rest of the journey when spring flows spike during snowmelt. Unlike salmon, steelhead smolts may be as old as 5 years and as long as 10 inches when they head to the ocean, which makes them more capable of surviving the migration to salt water.