The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently released a court-mandated biological opinion for the operation of the Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS). The biological opinion follows the most recent version of the plan, adopted in 2008, and a subsequent biological opinion from 2010. The plan was struck down in court in 2011. The new biological opinion has renewed an ongoing controversy about the efficacy of habitat restoration in restoring the 13 species of Columbia River Basin salmon and steelhead listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Critics of the most recent biological opinion, including environmental groups and the Nez Perce Tribe, cite the lack of improvement in salmon population as a sign that the traditional strategy of habitat restoration is not working. They would rather explore the breaching of four dams (i.e., increasing the water until it can spill over the tops of the dams) along the Snake River, which is a tributary of the Columbia River. Breaching, it’s hoped, would make passage along the river easier for endangered salmon and steelhead. But spilling water over the dam comes at the cost of the potential for that water to produce electricity.