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Stimulus project lists could include salmon recovery

Friday, February 27, 2009
Posted by: Oregon Water Coalition

Ever since the signing, and in most cases well before the signing, of the so-called economic stimulus package, federal agencies across the country have been scrambling to develop lists of projects that can be launched quickly and that will create jobs.

Some slices of that stimulus pie—$789 billion—could do double duty, creating jobs and adding fuel to Columbia River basin salmon recovery efforts.

The American Recovery and Investment Act signed Feb. 17 by President Barack Obama channels extra appropriations to federal agencies engaged in basin fish and wildlife mitigation activities.

A web page, recovery.gov, has been created to allow the public to track implementation of the plan.

The term “shovel-ready” has become more prominent in agency jargon as each works to produce lists of heretofore unfunded projects that could be launched quickly to create jobs and boost a sagging national economy.

The new act lists $4.6 billion in appropriations for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for projects nationwide.

The Department of Interior appropriation is $3 billion nationally and includes $1 billion for the Bureau of Reclamation, $500 million for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, $320 million for the Bureau of Land Management, $140 million for the U.S. Geological Survey and $280 million for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Department of Interior also has a web page dedicated to Recovery Act implementation, doi.gov.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which includes the Fisheries Service, appropriation is $830 million — $230 million for “Operations, Research, and Facilities” and $600 million for “Procurement, Acquisition and Construction.”

NOAA spokesman David Miller said Wednesday he could share “nothing definitive about how and where the money would be spent.” NOAA like the other federal entities is compiling a list of projects that will be prioritized within the Act’s spending limits, then passed to the Office of Management and Budget for scrutiny.

Agency “recovery plans” are due no later than May 1, according to guidelines developed for agency implementation of the Act. The first of required weekly progress reports are due next Tuesday. Those weekly reports are to provide a breakdown of funding, major actions taken to date and major planned actions.

The Corps’ national headquarters has asked districts and divisions across the country to submit proposals for “contract work that we know we can get out quickly,” said Dave Ponganis of the Corps’ Northwest Division. “We’re still going through that exercise.”

The Corps has long been involved in efforts to improve salmon passage at its dams on the Columbia-Snake river hydro system. There are 13 Columbia basin salmon and steelhead stocks that are listed under the Endangered Species Act that migrate up and down the hydro system.

The agency has in the past and continues to construct new fish facilities and improve existing systems to increase salmon survival, and evaluates long-term options for further salmon passage improvements as well as more fish friendly operational regimes.

The Corps, in the Northwest and elsewhere, is looking at “things we were already planning to do” but that could not yet be funded under existing budgets, Ponganis said. Projects already under way that could be “accelerated” are also being considered.

The goal of the Act, and the Corps, is “to get the work out and create jobs in the region,” he said. Ponganis said the agency hopes to begin letting contracts within a month, or at the most two.

The projects “must have already been through the rigors” of regulatory processes required by other laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act, he said.

The Corps is involved in a host of activities, from planning, designing, building, and operating locks and dams, to civil engineering for flood control, to dredging for waterway navigation, to design and management of military facilities, to environmental regulation and ecosystem restoration.

The Bureau of Reclamation also operates hydro, and irrigation, projects in the region. Overall the agency has constructed dams in 17 Western states and is the largest wholesaler of water in the country, and the second largest hydro producer in the West.

The agency typically has a budget of from $15 million to $18 million dedicated for ESA work in the Pacific Northwest Region, mostly for water acquisitions to improve in-stream flows and for tributary habitat restoration work, said Diana Cross of the Bureau.

Like the Corps, the Bureau is forwarding proposals to its headquarters to be prioritized for funding. It is suggesting shovel-ready projects, preferably ones that include matching funding.

A part of the Bureau process is a mapping of the proposed work to assure the spending is spread out across the country.

“There will be money coming to the Northwest,” Cross said, though no one knows yet what share if any would be for fish projects.

Both Cross and Ponganis said that care must be taken to make sure that there is the capability—the expertise, the workforce and materials—to carry out the planned work.

“If everybody comes up with the same type of projects we might not be able to come up with enough concrete, or lumber…,” Cross said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is also preparing a list and prioritizing.

“We always have a long list of projects that need to be done,” said Joan Jewett of the agency’s Pacific Region.

Columbia Basin Bulletin

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Federal climate change research program should realign focus

Friday, February 27, 2009
Posted by: Oregon Water Coalition

The federal government’s climate change research program should broaden its focus to include research that would support actions needed to cope with climate change-related problems that will impact society, while building on its successful research to improve understanding of the causes and processes of climate change, says a new report from the National Research Council.

As the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) looks to the future, it should establish a U.S. climate observing system; develop new modeling capabilities for regional- and decadal-scale forecasts; strengthen research on adaptation, mitigation, and vulnerability; initiate a periodic national assessment of climate impacts and responses; and routinely provide policymakers with crucial scientific information, tools, and forecasts.

“CCSP has created a robust infrastructure for observations and modeling, which has enabled scientists to document trends in critical climate parameters and identify the human impacts on climate change,” said Veerabhadran Ramanathan, chair of the committee that wrote the report, and distinguished professor of atmospheric and climate sciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego. “Now we need to know how to respond to climate change, while working closely with policymakers on mitigation and adaptation strategies.”

In 2007, the committee issued its first report, which evaluated the program’s progress at the request of CCSP’s former director. For this second report, the Research Council was asked to identify future priorities and lay out a framework to guide the evolution of the program.

The committee found that the program is hindered by its limited research into the social sciences—such as research on the role of human actions and behavior in changing climate and how societies can mitigate and adapt to the impacts—and the separation of natural and social sciences research.

Spending on human-dimensions research has never exceeded 3 percent of the CCSP research budget. As a result, research, data collection, and modeling of how people interact with or affect their environments have lagged behind corresponding activities on the physical climate system. The program should make transformational changes to adopt a holistic approach that connects research across disciplines, as well as engages policymakers and other stakeholders, the committee said.

Integrating research in the natural and social sciences should make it easier to tackle climate change problems that could directly impact communities, some of which include extreme weather and climate events and disasters; sea level rise and melting ice; fresh water availability; agriculture and food security; ecosystems management; new and re-emerging diseases; and effects on the U.S. economy. The knowledge gained from this integrative approach would guide the nation on choices to reduce the costs and risks of climate change impacts, and provide early warning of changes that are abrupt and large enough to push climate and human systems past tipping points.

Progress in these areas could be sped up by supporting research on vulnerability, adaptation, and mitigation. Moreover, targeted research in the natural sciences could help meet various community needs for climate information and services, such as drought forecasts for a particular region. These research initiatives would help address societal concerns of direct relevance to the program and provide a concrete focus for collecting human-dimensions data, the committee noted.

Another priority should be to help establish a U.S. climate observing system that includes physical, biological, and social observations to ensure that data needed to address climate change are collected or continued, the committee said. Even if people significantly reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, further climate change is inevitable.

Therefore, CCSP needs to have the capacity to explain what is happening to climate and why. It should work with federal, state, and international agencies to establish and maintain the system, as well as determine the agencies’ different roles and responsibilities for making the observations, archiving, and distributing data.

As research attention shifts toward the impact climate change has on societies, more information is needed at regional to local scales. CCSP should develop and implement a strategy to improve modeling of regional climate change and initialize seasonal to decadal climate forecasting, the report says.

Such enhanced predictions will require models that cover a wide range of space and time scales, especially those that can predict climate phenomena at regional (a few kilometers) or decadal time scales. Climate modeling to date has been primarily at the global scale, with time scales only for the next hundred years.

Moreover, CCSP should work with stakeholders to design and implement a comprehensive national assessment that identifies evolving science and societal needs. While CCSP is mandated to carry out a national assessment every four years, the last one involving a broad range of stakeholders was a decade ago. The collection of 21 synthesis and assessment reports published from 2006 to 2008 — although useful—did not add up to a comprehensive national assessment.

The full report is available at nap.edu.

Columbia Basin Bulletin

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Spring-Summer water forecasts slip below historic averages

Friday, February 6, 2009
Posted by: Oregon Water Coalition

Columbia-Snake river basin snowpack continued building into early January but has since gone into a stall that has water supply forecasts for spring and summer slipping further below historic averages. Expansion

An “early bird” forecast posted Jan. 29 online by the Northwest River Forecast Center says the most probable outcome from January through July are runoff volumes past The Dalles Dam this year that will be 87 percent of the 1971-2000 average, or about 93.8 million acre feet. All the runoff from the Snake and upper and mid-Columbia courses past The Dalles on the lower Columbia.

The expectation has fallen by 1 percent since a Jan. 2 early bird. The Jan. 29 forecast takes into account observed precipitation through Jan. 26 and assumed that precipitation would be 75 percent of average through the end of January and average for the rest of the season.

The upper Snake and lower Columbia tributaries have seen the biggest reduction—as a percent of average of particular dates—over the past month. The snow-water equivalent in the Little and Big Wood river basins in south-central Idaho, as an example, fell from 100 percent of average on Jan. 5 to 76 percent of normal on Feb. 5.

The Deschutes River snowpack’s snow-water equivalent fell from 106 percent of normal Jan. 5 to 80 percent of average for Feb. 5.

SWEs increased in almost all areas of the basin in January, but the accumulations were at less than the normal rate. Most SWEs are in the 80 to 90 percent range, according to the NWFC. The lowest are in an area from the North Cascades in Washington eastward into the Idaho panhandle at 60 to 80 percent. The best are in a swath from the Clearwater River in Idaho into the Upper Clark Fork river in Montana at 90 to 110 percent of average.

The forecast streamflows generally decreased 1 to 5 percent over the month with the lowest forecast values on the mainstem of the Snake river from Swan Falls to Brownlee Dam at 50 to 60 percent.

The January-July water supply forecast for Grand Coulee Dam on the mid-Columbia in central Washington is 92 percent of normal. Those flows stream down from snowpacks in British Columbia, northernmost Idaho and western Montana. That is actually up by 2 percent since the Jan. 2 early bird.

The Jan. 29 early bird prediction is for a runoff volume of 24.7 MAF—only 82 percent of normal—as measured at Lower Granite Dam on the lower Snake River. The Jan. 2 forecast was 85 percent of normal.

The SWE for the Clearwater-Salmon river drainages were at 87 percent of normal through Thursday, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s daily SNOTEL update. The percent of average for Jan. 5 was 95 percent. The Grande Ronde-Burnt-Powder-Imnaha snowpack now has a SWE at 83 percent of normal as compared to 90 percent of average for Jan. 5.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ early February runoff forecast for the Clearwater, which fills the reservoir behind Dworshak Dam in west-central Idaho, is 100 percent of normal for the April through July period.

The Corps forecast for Libby Dam inflows is 86 percent of normal during April through July. Libby is on the Kootenai River in northwestern Montana.

Columbia Basin Bulletin

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Investigation: sea lions died from heat, not humans

Friday, February 6, 2009
Posted by: Oregon Water Coalition

An investigation by NOAA’s Fisheries Service into the deaths last May of six sea lions trapped in two floating cages below Bonneville Dam found no evidence of human intervention, either intentional or accidental, in the closing of the cage doors.

The federal agency has concluded that, once trapped, the animals likely became overheated and died of physical exertion or stress-induced heat prostration. NOAA Fisheries on Thursday released the results of its investigation and related medical reports, which can be found at: http://www.nwr.noaa.gov/Marine-Mammals/Seals-and-Sea-Lions/Sea-Lion-Update.cfm

The investigation rules out any human involvement—such as poisoning or gunshots—in the sea lions’ deaths.

An investigation summary report prepared by scientists and veterinarians used five sources of data which relate to the cause of death of the sea lions in the two live-capture traps at Bonneville Dam. 1) Reports prepared from notes taken during the necropsies of all six animals performed on May 4-5. 2) Results of x-rays of all six sea lion heads conducted at the USFWS Forensic Laboratory in Ashland, Ore, on May 6. 3) Pathologist reports from the Diagnostic Laboratory at Colorado State University, College of Veterinary Medicine on tissues submitted from four of the six animals. 4) A summary of discussions regarding the possibility that the animals were poisoned. 5) Descriptions of the time and condition of animals in the traps during the morning of May 4 recorded by the Office of Law Enforcement, National Marine Fisheries Service from evidence gathered during their investigation.

It was determined at time of necropsy that none of the open lesions on the skin of the animals were bullet holes, being instead either fresh or old bite wounds. Some small caliber projectiles or single pieces of buckshot were either seen on x-ray or recovered from the soft tissues below the skin from three of the six animals.

But none of these projectiles was associated with open wounds or had penetrated vital organs so they were not associated with the death of the animals, the summary report says.

Investigators also ruled out poisoning. The necropsy “showed no evidence of injection of a chemical compound into the fascia, blubber or muscle, but it is clear that some chemicals would be difficult to detect.”

“… we believe it is highly unlikely that the sea lions were poisoned via the topical application, ingestion or injection of a toxic compound or that they received an anesthetic overdose.”

Delivering doses of a toxic substance or overdose of an anesthetic to sea lions in the floating traps would be extremely difficult, the report says. Due to the skin and blubber thickness of the animals a 2-inch or greater length needle would have to be used to reach the muscle layers.

“It is unlikely that an individual could enter the traps and hand inject a drug into the body of a sea lion without suffering personal injury,” the report says. “Approaching the trap from the outside by boat would be possible but tends to cause animals to move away from the margins of the trap to the far corner, making reaching them with a jab stick nearly impossible.

“If animals were shot from outside the trap with a projectile dart, the darts and needles would have remained in the trap. None were found in the traps,” the report says.

The necropsy showed the animals’ internal organs were elevated above normal body temperature and were congested with blood and fluids. Severe congestion of the lungs, bronchi and trachea, pathological changes that are consistent with severe hyperthermia, were noted during microscopic examination of the tissues.

“It was these observations on gross necropsy coupled with the pathologist’s report which lead us to a diagnosis of death by heat prostration.

NOAAA Fisheries said several factors, such as changing river levels, sea lion movements shifting the traps or entanglement of the cage doors’ trip lines, may have contributed to the accidental closing of the doors. Four California and two Steller sea lions fell victim to the accident. The Steller sea lions are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The trapping was part of a federally authorized effort by Washington and Oregon to remove California sea lions that had been identified as having a history of preying on federally protected salmon below the dam. Under their Fisheries Service authorization granted last year, the states trapped and transferred to Sea World aquariums in Texas and Florida six California sea lions in April and early May.

Sea lions naturally haul out of the water and rest on structures like jetties or docks. Floating cages are comfortable haul-out sites for sea lions and have for years been used by researchers to attract and humanely trap these animals for a variety of purposes, principally to mark and measure them and to collect biological samples for research, before the animals are released back into the wild.

The doors to these traps are left open, allowing any animal to come and go at will. They are closed only when researchers visit the traps to carry out their research.

The agency said that because of the Bonneville incident the states are making changes to all trapping practices to ensure that cage doors are securely locked when they are left open and can be closed only when researchers are present and can monitor and quickly examine and release any trapped sea lions.

The authorization for the two states to trap and permanently remove California sea lions was suspended last May as part of an agreement among NOAA’s Fisheries Service, the states, and the Humane Society of the United States, which is suing the agency over the legality of the authorization. That suspension expires March 1, when the states expect to begin trapping and permanent removal again.

Columbia Basin Bulletin

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ESA-listed sea lions feasting on Columbia White Sturgeon

Friday, February 6, 2009
Posted by: Oregon Water Coalition

Steller sea lions have arrived in record-matching numbers in the waters below Bonneville Dam to gorge themselves in a Columbia River teeming with white sturgeon.

The Stellers have been seen below the dam as early as November previously and last year were spotted on Oct. 15. And the number observed preying, primarily, on white sturgeon has already risen to 17, which already equals the total observed during the entire winter-spring (Jan. 1-May 31) season in 2008. The previous high total in seven years of observations was 10. In the first year of the study, 2002, no Stellers were observed below the dam.

The research led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was launched to learn more about California sea lions’ behavior and eating habits and the predation’s impact on spring Chinook salmon and steelhead. Some of those salmon and steelhead stocks are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

In recent history only a handful of marine mammals were typically seen at the dam in any year, but the numbers began to grow after the turn of the century.

One theory is that huge spring Chinook salmon runs early this decade, including a record in 2001, drew the California sea lions attention. Over the past six years from 69 to 106 individual California sea lions have been counted in late winter and spring feeding on salmon. The dam is about 146 river miles from the Pacific Ocean.

The California sea lions presence at the dam is greatest during the upriver spring Chinook spawning run, March 15 through June 15. At least five individual California sea lions have been spotted so far this year, according to a Jan. 30 status report prepared by the researchers. No chinook have been counted yet passing over Bonneville’s fish ladders.

The sturgeon are there, however, in big numbers, as are the Stellers.

“That’s definitely the big issue at this time of year,” said the Corps’ Robert Stansell, who heads the research. “We’re well ahead of the curve” in terms of numbers of sturgeon consumed. The California sea lions focus largely on salmon and steelhead while the Steller eat sturgeon almost exclusively.

So far this season researchers have observed the Stellers preying on 121 while sturgeon. Full daytime observations did not begin until Jan. 19, with limited observations occurring before then.

Another 159 fish that observers could not identify were also taken by Stellers. Those fish were likely sturgeon the report says. Of the 606 white sturgeon observed taken last year, Stellers took 592 or 97.7 percent of the total.

In 2008, the expanded (for unobserved hours) sturgeon catch estimate for the below Bonneville observation area was 792, continuing the upward trend in predation on sturgeon in the Bonneville Dam tailrace. When unidentified catch was divided proportionally according to daily catch distributions and added to the expanded sturgeon catch estimate, the adjusted catch estimate was 1,139.

The big early numbers are “one of the reasons we have our crews out there—to deter the Steller sea lions” from preying on sea lions, said Charlie Corrarino, Conservation and Recovery manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Fish Division.

The Columbia River white sturgeon is “the healthiest population in the world,” Corrarino said, and the states of Oregon and Washington would like to keep it that way. Hazing by the states from boats began the first week in January and has occurred a few days each week.

Boat-based crews from the ODFW, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission will haze sea lions within the Bonneville Dam boat restricted zone and in downriver areas two days per week initially, and expand to seven days per week by March.

The Corps is contracting U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services to haze sea lions from March 1 through May 31 from dam structures and adjacent lands seven days per week, eight hours per day, during daylight hours.

An oddity this year is that two California sea lions were regularly seen foraging in the Bonneville Dam tailrace throughout the fall and winter months, significantly earlier than recorded in past years, according to the report.

California sea lions returning to Bonneville Dam as early as mid-September preyed on fall Chinook and other fall fish species for the first time. The marine mammals, exclusively male, in large part exit the Columbia system by June en route to their breeding grounds off the coast of Southern California.

One, an animal extensively documented at the dam since 2002, was first sighted on Sept. 18. Researchers conducted near-daily (most weekdays) 30-45 minute surveys of the Bonneville dam tailrace areas to document sea lion presence and predation activity.

The first arrival, C265, was observed on 41 of 46 observation days between Sept. 18 and Dec. 31, and was likely present on most of the days not observed. Another California sea lion was seen at the dam on nine of 46 observations days and a third was seen once during the period.

In the limited days and hours observed between mid-September and the end of December, C265 was observed taking 19 Chinook, six Coho, two steelhead and five unknown fish. The other frequent visitor was seen taking four Chinook and 1 unknown fish. The one-time visitor took two Chinook.

The states are beginning to gear up for its planned effort to trap and remove some of the California sea lions from the area below the dam.

ODFW and WDFW planned to deploy three sea lion traps at the corner collector of Bonneville powerhouse two this week and one trap at the old navigation lock channel by powerhouse one.

The traps could be used as soon as March 1 to catch and mark some California sea lions and to remove others that have been identified as chronic visitors and salmon predators. The states were granted the removal authority by NOAA’s Fisheries Service under Section 120 of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The goal is to reduce predation on listed salmon.

Final plans are being developed by the states for the transfer of sea lions to captivity and for euthanizing animals that can not go to captivity or do not use the traps. ODFW and WDFW expect to operate the traps weekly (1-3 events per week) through the end of May.

“We’re hoping that there are still some facilities that are interested,” Corrarino said. Last year six sea lions were flown to SeaWorld facilities in Orlando, Fla., and San Antonio, Texas, and SeaWorld and other facilities were willing to take additional animals.

The authorization allows free-ranging individually identifiable predatory sea lions to be shot by a qualified marksman when hauled out on the concrete apron along the North side of Cascade Island, on the flow deflectors along the base of the dam’s spillway, or in the water within 50 feet of the concrete apron or the face of the dam at powerhouses one and two.

“We will make every effort to retrieve any animal from the river,” Corrarino said.

The Humane Society of the United States is attempting in federal court to have the trapping operation stopped.

The Steller sea lions, which are also ESA-listed, cannot be lethally removed.

Columbia Basin Bulletin

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