U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works
U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works
Hearing Statements
Date:   06/24/2003
 
Colonel Dale Knieriemen
Deputy Commander, Northwestern Division
United States Army Corps of Engineers

Implementation of the National Marine Fisheries Service's 2000 Biological Opinion for listed anadromous fish regarding operation of the Federal Columbia River Power System.

Mr. Chairman, Committee members, and distinguished guests, I am pleased to testify on US Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) activities to restore Columbia River Basin salmon and steelhead stocks listed under the Endangered Species Act. The Corps appreciates the support of Congress and the Northwest delegation for salmon recovery. Today, I have good news to report on these ongoing efforts.

The Corps, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), the "Action Agencies" for the Federal Columbia River Power System, are in our third year of activities under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries 2000 Biological Opinion on the Federal Columbia River Power System. We are making significant headway in implementing most of the measures in the Reasonable and Prudent Alternative. We have made and are making numerous improvements to dams and fish passage facilities throughout the system. We have implemented flow, release and other operational measures for fish during fish migration seasons, and we are laying the groundwork for potential further operational adjustments. Habitat restoration actions are proceeding. We are working closely with our partners to assure that our comprehensive research, monitoring and evaluation (RM&E) program will provide the answers we need to evaluate our progress and make course adjustments as we proceed. The Federal agencies also are working collectively to ensure our efforts are compatible with those of the states, tribes and others in this huge and very complex program.

The NOAA Fisheries Findings Letter for the Action Agencies 2003-2007 Implementation Plan identifies some areas of concern where the agencies have been delayed in implementation. Subbasin Plans, developed at the state and local level with Northwest Power and Conservation Council assistance and BPA funding, are underway but taking more time than initially projected. Completion of these non-Federal plans is important because they are intended to guide habitat restoration efforts in the basin and improve coordination. While slow to start, RM&E efforts now are coming together and plans are taking shape. RM&E is critical to the 2005 check-in to measure effects of the Action Agencies' restoration activities on recovering fish populations.

Columbia River Basin fish restoration is more than a one or two year effort. We must remain committed for the ten-year period covered by the Biological Opinion. Fish returns have been very good for the past three years, and we expect 2003 to be another good year for returning adult salmon. But we must continue looking beyond the immediate numbers and focus on the long-term trends. We have to sustain our commitment to hydro, habitat, hatchery and harvest improvements to give these fish a reasonable certainty of long-term recovery.

The Administration has supported the Corps Columbia River Salmon Program by requesting $128 million and $125 million for Fiscal Years 2003 and 2004 respectively. These amounts include funding the Columbia River Fish Mitigation project for configuration studies and actions at lower Columbia and Snake Dams, habitat studies and actions, Chief Joseph Dam gas abatement, Willamette River temperature control construction and the appropriated portion of operation and maintenance funding for fish facilities, juvenile fish transport and research. In addition we are receiving about $33 million annually in direct funding from BPA for operation and maintenance of fish facilities. Our budget requests have been based on our estimated requirements for a program to fully comply with the Biological Opinion for the ten year period through 2010.

The Fiscal Year 2003 Omnibus Bill funded specific Biological Opinion actions for habitat restoration in the Columbia RiverEstuary as authorized in Section 536 of the Water Resources Development Act of 2000, as well as gas abatement measures at Chief Joseph Dam and an investigation of System Flood Control under the Columbia River Fish Mitigation (CRFM) project. Each of these addresses important elements in the Biological Opinion, and assists the Corps in meeting fish restoration goals.

NWF et al v. NMFS et al

On May 7, 2003, Judge James A. Redden of the Federal District Court of Oregon issued an opinion ruling in favor of a coalition of environmental groups in National Wildlife Federation et al v. National Marine Fisheries Service et al. This case challenged the NOAA 2000 Fisheries Biological Opinion. The judge determined that the NOAA Opinion was "arbitrary and capricious." He has remanded the Opinion to NOAA Fisheries to address the deficiencies within one year and has required reports to the court every 90 days. The judge has not yet ruled on whether to let the 2000 Biological Opinion stand during this period or to "vacate" the Opinion. He has asked the parties to provide arguments that are expected to lead to a decision this summer. In the meantime, the Action Agencies will continue to implement the Biological Opinion.

The court is now considering a motion by the plaintiffs to vacate the Biological Opinion while it is undergoing revision. Briefing on the motion was completed June 20 and the court may rule at any time. A decision by the court to vacate the Biological Opinion could have severe consequences on NOAA Fisheries, on the federal Action Agencies and on the entire federal Columbia River Power System. It would remove the incidental take protection that currently shields federal employees from legal liability under the Endangered Species Act. It would also threaten the continuation of many federal programs designed to help recover imperiled salmon runs such as the demonstrably-successful juvenile transportation effort. Vacatur would destroy the current operational certainty for the highly complex power system, and replace it with institutionalized uncertainty. This uncertainty would arise from the continuing threat of judicial intervention to change current operations to meet the demands of the plaintiffs in the litigation - regardless of the impacts of those changes on the power system or even on the imperiled fish. The reliability and economic efficiency of the power system would be damaged, with no clear benefit for fish.

Progress Made

The Action Agencies recently released the Endangered Species Act 2002 Progress Report for the Federal Columbia River Power System. This report documents many accomplishments under the Biological Opinion, but two fish passage innovations stand out.

One is the Bonneville Dam Second Powerhouse Corner Collector, a $55 million project (includes entire project costs from design to post-construction monitoring) with planned construction completion in December 2003. Federal biologists expect this high flow surface bypass facility for young salmon to provide a 1 to 3 percent increase in juvenile fish survival past the Bonneville Second Powerhouse. The corner collector will work in conjunction with the existing second powerhouse screened juvenile bypass system. Together, these non­turbine routes should guide about 90 percent of all juvenile fish at the second powerhouse and achieve an estimated survival rate exceeding 95 percent.

The other fish passage innovation is the Removable Spillway Weir, or RSW, a prototype juvenile fish passage improvement installed at Lower Granite Dam in 2001. Existing spillway gates at Lower Granite release water that is 50 feet below the surface at the dam face. Fish pass through these deep gates under high pressure and velocities. The RSW allows juvenile salmon and steelhead to pass the dam nearer the water surface under lower velocities and lower pressures, providing a more efficient and less stressful dam passage route. The RSW structure also is designed to be "removable" by controlled descent to the bottom of the dam forebay. This capability permits returning the spillway to original flow capacity during major flood events. Testing for mechanical and biological effectiveness has produced promising results. The Lower Granite RSW working together with the existing prototype powerhouse surface collector and forebay guidance structure shows a seven to one effectiveness ratio based on first year data. This ratio means that about 70 percent of the fish passed the spillway using about 10 percent of the river flow. Thus, the RSW has the potential to provide not only fish benefits but also power savings to the region. We continued testing the "stand-alone" RSW at Lower Granite (without surface collector or forebay guidance structure) in 2003. We are also evaluating potential implementation of an RSW at Ice Harbor Dam by 2005 at an estimated cost of $24.3 million.

Besides these new technologies, we continue to make improvements to existing juvenile and adult bypass systems at the eight lower Columbia and Snake River dams. These improvements are in accordance with the Biological Opinion and include input from state, tribal and other Federal biologists and engineers through the System Configuration Team and other regional forums. The juvenile fish bypass systems guide fish away from turbines and through channels that run the length of the dam. The fish are bypassed to the river below the dam, or they are routed to a holding area for loading onto specially equipped barges or trucks. NOAA Fisheries research on Snake River spring/summer chinook indicates that between 50 and 60 percent of juvenile fish that migrate in-river successfully pass the eight Corps dams on the lower Snake and Columbia Rivers. This survival is similar to when there were only four dams, and is up from about a 10 to 40 percent survival rate in the 1960s and 1970s.

Operations for Fish

To the extent we can, the Action Agencies continue to operate the system of dams and reservoirs in accordance with the NOAA Fisheries and US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Biological Opinions. In this effort we get assistance from the Technical Management Team of state, tribal and Federal representatives who also receive input from other basin interests. Throughout the juvenile fish migration season, the team reviews flows, forecasts and fish movement and makes recommendations to adaptively manage the system to reflect changing conditions and demands on the system. Water conditions in 2002 were close to normal; target flow conditions were achieved for the most part, and spill was provided as planned.

The juvenile fish transportation program transported approximately 14.1 million juvenile fish from collector dams to a release point below Bonneville Dam where they continued their migration to the estuary and ocean. Most of these juvenile fish, approximately 13.7 million, were barged and the remainder were transported by truck. The estimated survival to the point of release was over 98 percent.

The Corps operates the juvenile fish transport program in accordance with the NOAA Fisheries Biological Opinion and with Technical Management Team input. Four Corps dams are equipped to collect fish for transport: Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental, and McNary. Transported fish are released downstream of Bonneville Dam. Studies indicate that transport can increase fish survival as measured by smolt to adult return rates. This is especially true for wild fish (about 85 percent greater returns for transported wild steelhead versus in­river and about 30 percent greater for wild chinook).

The major issue is whether barge transportation can achieve the smolt-to-adult ratio needed to halt the population decline and move to recovery. Differential delayed mortality ("D") of transported fish is probably the single largest technical question regarding the role of transportation in salmon recovery. It is uncertain if differential delayed transport mortality is a natural process (i.e., some percentage of fish will die whether they travel in barges or in-river), or if it is actually caused by barging, for example, by releasing fish in the lower river without the experience of migration. There are numerous theories; however, the phenomenon is probably due to multiple causes rather than any single one. Regardless of "D," transported Snake River wild fish can return at a higher rate than those that remain in-river during their out-migration. Until these uncertainties are resolved the NOAA Fisheries Biological Opinion calls for the Corps to continue improvements for fish survival through all routes of passage (spillway, bypass systems, turbines and transportation).

In January 2003 the Corps began implementing the VARQ alternative flood control plan operation on an interim basis at Libby Dam. (VARQ stands for variable discharge, with Q being the standard engineering shorthand for discharge or flow.) Implementation of VARQ at Libby and Hungry Horse dams in Montana is part of both the NOAA Fisheries and USFWS Biological Opinions. It is a key action to protect threatened and endangered fish species including Kootenai River white sturgeon, salmon, and bull trout, through improved ability to provide spring and summer flows. Hungry Horse Dam, operated by the Bureau of Reclamation, began interim implementation of VARQ flood control in 2002. This operation reduces releases from Libby and Hungry Horse during the winter drawdown period of January through April in most years (depending on forecasted water supply), providing better assurance of reservoir refill in the summer. This is accomplished by transferring flood control storage requirements under some water runoff forecast conditions. Interim VARQ flood control will continue until the Corps and Reclamation complete an Environmental Impact Statement on potential longer-term implementation expected by 2005.

Estuary Restoration Efforts

Planning efforts for several habitat restoration projects in the Columbia River Estuary continue in close coordination with regional partners. The Brownsmead Project east of Astoria would restore tidal flow to about 9.2 miles of sloughs. We have initiated study of a project in Southwest Washington to replace nine culverts that are blocking or restricting access to small tributary streams to the Columbia River. A project at Crims Island would acquire and restore approximately 425 acres of tidal emergent marsh, swamp, slough, and riparian forest habitat in the upper Columbia River Estuary to benefit fish and wildlife. Another is a project at Lena's Lake with USFWS to create around 1000 feet of spawning channel for Chum salmon. USFWS, NOAA Fisheries and the Corps are pursuing a project at Julia Butler National Wildlife Refuge to restore approximately nine miles of secondary sloughs to fisheries access.

In addition to project-specific planning, the Corps is working with the states of Oregon and Washington, the Lower Columbia River Estuary Partnership and BPA to initiate a strategic master plan to identify long-range projects to improve the ecological health of the river. The Action Agencies also continue to fund much-needed research in the estuary.

Challenges Remain

We still have a long way to go. We are in the third year of a ten-year effort and must keep the momentum going. In the estuary, the Corps is pushing hard to meet the Biological Opinion measure to restore 10,000 acres of salmon and steelhead habitat. We will continue to work with Oregon and Washington through the Lower Columbia River Estuary Partnership to identify the most promising sites and leverage our resources to get the job done.

Operation of Libby Dam will be a challenge to balance the needs of both listed and non-listed fish as well as those of residents living downstream of the project, including Canada residents.

RM&E measures in the Biological Opinion are progressing but remain a complex task for the Action Agencies and NOAA Fisheries. We are pursuing potential opportunities for linking to state, tribal, local and other efforts of a similar nature as we set up these systems. NOAA Fisheries' parallel RM&E effort has been delayed due to constrained funding so we anticipate setbacks in the overall ability to monitor whether our actions are working for increased fish populations.

Our FY03 appropriation for funding CRFM actions under the Biological Opinion was $85 million, a reduction of $13 million from the budget request of $98 million. Savings and slippage further reduced the funds available to just under $70 million. We continue to meet with regional, state, tribal and Federal counterparts in the System Configuration Team (another of the NOAA Fisheries regional forums for coordinating Biological Opinion actions) to discuss and re-prioritize fish passage improvements, planned research activities and studies for the 2003 program. Some of our planned actions to comply with the Biological Opinion have been delayed.

What help we need

Overall we believe the Action Agencies are making very good progress toward the 2003 "check-in." However, there is much work ahead of us before we reach the 2005 mid-point evaluation. Continued progress in meeting the 2005 "check­in," which will include measuring and evaluating effects on fish populations, will depend upon resources and funding. The President's budget for the Corps for Columbia River salmon activities is sufficient to keep us on track, and we respectfully request your full support for that budget.

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my testimony. I would be happy to answer any questions.