Snake river dams

The Ice Harbor Dam near Burbank, Wash., is one of four dams on the lower Snake River. Many factors are considered in salmon recovery plans, a NOAA Fisheries spokesman  says.

Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson's proposal to tear out four dams on the Snake River has brought renewed focus on the Columbia River System Operations environmental impact statement and NOAA Fisheries' salmon recovery plan.

"Many factors contributed to the decline of salmon," NOAA West Coast public affairs officer Michael Milstein told the Capital Press. "Dams were a big part of it, but not all of it. So they must be part of the solution. That has been happening in terms of overhauling the system to make fish a priority."

The NOAA Fisheries recovery plans for Snake River salmon and steelhead are all being implemented across the basin, Milstein said.

The approximate cost of NOAA's recovery plan is $139 million over 10 years, he said. One of the main sources of funding is the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund, a stream of federal funds, Milstein said.

That's the cost of only the habitat improvement projects in the tributaries. It does not include costs of dam improvements, hatchery changes, and other parts of the recovery plan.

NOAA Fisheries has not evaluated Simpson's plan, Milstein said.

"It goes beyond dam removal and threatened and endangered fish," he said.

NOAA Fisheries develops recovery plans for threatened and endangered species listed under the Endangered Species Act. These recovery plans are voluntary and outline goals for improved survival across the life cycle — habitat, hatcheries, hydro power and harvest, Milstein said.

The environmental impact statement examines the operations of the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

The plan outlines the improvements needed to achieve recovery. The plan goes beyond the dams to include other parts of the salmon life cycle, Milstein said.

NOAA's biological opinion, commonly referred to as the "BiOp," addresses the impact of the operation of the dams, but is not responsible for recovering the species.

"Some people misunderstand this," Milstein said. "They feel that the biological opinion should guarantee recovery."

Recovery means that the species is secure enough not to become threatened or endangered again, Milstein said.

Populations must be genetically diverse enough to not be subject to inbreeding and maintain their resilience, especially considering climate change, he said.

Breaching the dams would benefit the fish in the long term, the BiOp found, but would also impact the environmental, socioeconomic and  cultural aspects of river operations.

The preferred alternative calls for making changes at the dams to improve passage and conditions for salmon and other fish listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Fish are responding positively in many places to improvements in habitat, Milstein said, with increases in survival and productivity.

"The challenge with all things salmon is to try to measure the benefits of improvements in habitat when there are all sorts of other factors affecting salmon, from ocean conditions to snowpack," he said. "Combining all these variables paints a complicated picture that makes it difficult to tease out the narrow benefits of any one factor."

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