In July 2022, the Upper Columbia United Tribes (UCUT) requested that the Independent Scientific Advisory Board (ISAB) review their Phase 2 Implementation Plan: Testing Feasibility of Reintroduced Salmon in the Upper Columbia Basin (Phase 2 Plan). The Tribes are using a phased approach to investigate the feasibility of restoring salmon to the upper Columbia River Basin above Chief Joseph, Grand Coulee, and the Spokane River dams. A phased approach is called for in the Columbia River Basin 2014 Fish and Wildlife Program and is reaffirmed in the 2020 Addendum to the 2014 Program.
In October 2022, the UCUT and their collaborators led the ISAB members on a tour of Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams and the blocked area above them. Hearing from Tribal leaders and staff at the site visits was essential for a deeper historical context of the dams’ effects on the blocked area ecosystem. The ISAB heard about the loss of salmon from their homelands for five human generations and the healing power of this reintroduction process for Indigenous spirituality, identity, and wellness. The Tribes also expressed their desire for the reintroduction to reconnect and benefit the entire Columbia River ecosystem for everyone, both Tribal and non-tribal. These efforts are consistent with the objective of the Fish and Wildlife Program to mitigate for the complete loss of anadromous fish and the losses to other fish and wildlife species in areas above Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams. The UCUT’s reintroduction efforts also generate important contributions to the science of salmon ecology and of fish passage at high head dams.
The following summary highlights the ISAB’s major findings on each component, which are described in more detail in the full report.
The Phase 2 Plan provides an overall roadmap to answer critical questions required to design an effective approach for reintroducing salmon above Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams. Over the next two decades, the stepwise approach and adaptive management process to understand the ecological and structural requirements for reintroduction will be critical for decision making and overall success. Such testing of the reintroduction concept is imperative because 80 years of blockage to fish migration by extremely large and complex dams and associated structures coupled with downstream stressors on salmon populations create major uncertainties. The field studies, modeling, facilities designs, and initial reintroductions are coupled in a structured, strategic approach that will require continued refinement, documentation, and adaptive management.
The UCUT are developing an overall adaptive management plan that includes 1) a process to obtain information required to design reintroduction actions and 2) a process for making decisions about the types and sequences of reintroduction efforts. Flowcharts have been developed to help guide decision-making, which is an important starting point, but the decisions will be subject to many uncertainties that will require ongoing refinement as the project proceeds. The proposed technical and policy teams could provide timely and effective coordination with state and federal agencies, Public Utility Districts, and other cooperators, and thereby strengthen initial decisions and actions.
The Phase 2 Plan uses a stepwise and flexible approach for prioritizing the sequence of field studies and development of fish passage facilities, which will inform next steps. The staged or incremental approach is justified, given the uncertainties in reintroducing salmon above these major dams. The proposed “steppingstone” approach will progressively establish reintroduction efforts from lower to upper regions in the blocked area and sequentially design juvenile release strategies and determine effective management steps.
Data Analysis and Life Cycle Modeling
The Phase 2 Plan would be strengthened by more thorough description of how information from the field studies and Life Cycle Model will be integrated and used to make decisions. The field studies will provide critical data to inform a robust Life Cycle Model that will be useful to explore possible outcomes for salmon populations, generating large amounts of information and data. The UCUT need to determine the characteristics of the Life Cycle Model needed in Phase 2 and decide how to modify the existing model or develop a new one. A unified database and clear analysis plan will support integration of the data with the model, inform long-term data management, and enhance adaptive management.
Estimates of available habitat and potential production of summer/fall Chinook and sockeye were based on scientifically sound, but relatively simple, assumptions and limited information. The survival and migration studies are critical for improving estimates of production potential and reducing uncertainty. The supporting studies will provide important information on factors that influence the production of reintroduced Chinook and sockeye salmon.
The overall approach is scientifically sound for evaluating interim fish passage systems and ultimately informing the potential development and evaluation of more permanent facilities for movement of juvenile and adult salmon around Chief Joseph, Grand Coulee, and upstream dams. Anticipated performance metrics for juvenile and adult passage have been developed for all major dams. Estimates about upstream and downstream fish passage are based on reasonable assumptions and the best available data but may be overly optimistic given uncertainties about survival in the blocked area, passage efficiency and survival, and downstream survival. The field studies will be essential for refining decision thresholds and designing both interim and permanent passage facilities. When designing passage facilities, it will be essential to consider benefits and risks of passage designs for other taxa, including ones whose migrations might be deemed beneficial and ones whose migrations could be deemed undesirable.
Overall, the study designs are well conceived and should reduce uncertainties about fish survival and dam passage. The ISAB commends the collaboration between the UCUT and their cooperating agencies and institutions. However, improved reliability of sources, numbers, and conditions of experimental fish is essential to address the assumptions and uncertainties. The ISAB encourages the Council and BPA to assist where possible to make the studies more robust and informative.
Climate change and hydrological uncertainty may affect the success of reintroduction of salmon into the blocked area. Existing fish monitoring programs should be leveraged to gain more information over a longer period of time that reflects hydrologic variability so that the UCUT can determine whether modifications to the support studies and facilities designs will be needed.
The UCUT’s cost projections are necessarily more uncertain the farther out into the future they extend. Some additional background, basis, and justification for cost projections is warranted for the RM&E of early stages of Phase 2. Both funded and non-funded contributions by the Tribes and their collaborators demonstrate the full extent of people and resources being dedicated to the reintroduction effort. These contributions should be described in the cost analysis.
The Phase 2 Plan clearly expresses the deep importance of reintroducing salmon to the UCUT members and the Upper Columbia River ecosystem. At the same time, it addresses mitigation needs identified in the Fish and Wildlife Program. As the ISAB previously concluded for the Phase 1 Plan, it is reasonable to expect that reintroduction could be successful to some extent, but there is substantial uncertainty about the numbers of adults that will return and the types of management that will be required to maintain them. The UCUT have created a strategic plan to obtain the information needed to address these uncertainties and have developed an adaptive management process to guide their decisions. The UCUT’s reintroduction efforts face complex challenges due to the number of stakeholders, cooperators, large geographical scope, and long duration of the program. While some parts of the Plan may be overly optimistic, they use a cautious stepwise approach to ensure that the goals and management actions are rooted in a firm and attainable foundation of knowledge to restore anadromous salmon to the blocked area above Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams.