The federal government plotted a stay-the-course strategy on as-of-yet unsuccessful efforts to recover Snake River salmon and steelhead and other listed species of ocean-going fish Friday.

The Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Bonneville Power Administration released a draft environmental impact statement on the operation of the Columbia River Hydropower Systems and its effects on salmon and steelhead protected by the Endangered Species Act. The document, four years in the making and nearly 5,000 pages long, said breaching the four dams on the lower Snake River would lead to the best chance of recovering fish that return to Idaho, eastern Washington and northeastern Oregon — but rejected that option as too costly and disruptive to power generation and commodity shipping.

Instead, the document proposed a strategy built around the concept of flexible spill, where water is spilled at some of the dams at high levels for 16 hours a day, but reduced for the rest of the day to coincide with higher demand and prices for electricity. The strategy was adopted last year and was set to run through next year as an interim measure to cover the time the federal study was being authored. The idea is to use spill to speed travel time for juvenile fish and decrease the number of fish that pass through turbines and fish bypass systems at the dams, a strategy that has shown promise of decreasing dam-related mortality.

The agency’s preferred alternative calls for continuing that strategy into the future but also adds even more flexibility by shifting some springtime flows from places like Dworshak Dam near Orofino to the winter, when the water is more valuable for power production. It also proposes a number of other measures to increase fish survival, including altering flows to discourage predatory birds like Caspian terns from nesting on islands in Columbia River and upgrading turbines the Corps claims will both increase power production and decrease fish mortality. It calls for a program that has some juvenile fish captured and shipped downriver in trucks and barges to start about two weeks earlier. Doing so would help balance the number of fish transported with the number that stay in the rivers.

According to the document, the full slate of actions could increase smolt-to-adult survival rates of Snake River chinook by 35 percent and Snake River steelhead by 28 percent. Those increases would not vault smolt-to-adult return rates into the 2 to 6 percent range with an average of 4 percent that is deemed necessary to recover the fish. However, the agencies determined it would achieve survival rates high enough to satisfy minimum requirements of the Endangered Species Act.

“I commend the team for its commitment to identifying a preferred alternative that balances the system’s authorized purposes and our resource, legal and institutional obligations,” said Lorri Gray, Bureau of Reclamation regional director. “This is a significant accomplishment made possible by the hard work and strong partnership with organizations throughout the region and among the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and Bonneville Power Administration.”

An analysis by the Fish Passage Center at Portland indicated that government’s strategy would produce smolt-to-adult return rates that would not meet recovery targets, and that climate change is likely to produce more frequent river and ocean conditions that would lead to population declines.

“The thing I would really worry about is under climate change conditions, the lower end of range of (smolt-to-adult return rates), they are not going to keep the stocks from declining,” said Michele DeHart, director of the Fish Passage Center.

Previous studies by the Fish Pass Center indicate that breaching the Snake River dams and spilling water at dams on the Columbia River could lead to a four-fold increase in fish numbers.

Fish advocates panned the document as insufficient to meet the challenges of fish recovery.

“I’m disappointed but not surprised,” said Justin Hayes, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League at Boise. “It’s the sixth in a string of failed federal plans. It doesn’t waver from the status quo. It tweaks it, and quite frankly we know what status quo has been getting us — fish in decline. We’ve spent $17 billion and it’s not working. We need bold action and this plan doesn’t do that.”

The Nez Perce Tribe has long urged the agencies to breach the lower Snake River dams and has successfully sued the government several times over former plans for not meeting the standards of the ESA. It also cooperated with the federal government as it developed the draft EIS.

“We view restoring the lower Snake River as urgent and overdue — and we are committed to continuing to provide leadership in all forums: from the halls of Congress, to our federal agency trustees and partners, to the courtroom, to the statehouses, to conversations with our neighbors, energy interests, and other river users, to this EIS,” stated Nez Perce Chairman Shannon F. Wheeler.

Those who support the government’s strategy and want Snake River dams to remain in place were pleased with the draft.

“Breaching the lower Snake River dams is not an option for maintaining the balance in a system that powers our homes and businesses and feeds our communities in so many ways,” said Kristin Meira, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association.

According to the draft EIS, replacing power produced by the dams with carbon-free sources would cost as much as $527 million annually and could require as much as $1 billion in investments. Replacing the power with natural gas turbines would cost $200 million a year and lead to a 10 percent increase in the release of greenhouse gases, the report said.

Breaching would eliminate barge transportation on the Snake River and raise shipping costs paid by wheat farmers 7 to 24 cents a bushel or 10 to 33 percent, according to the EIS. If all shipping switched to rail, it would require investments between $25 million to $50 million for new facilities and another $30 million to $36 million to upgrade shortline rail lines.

According to the draft document, breaching the dams would cost about $955 million or about $35.4 million a year over 50 years. But breaching would save the government nearly $79 million a year in dam maintenance costs and $32 million in capital costs. Operation and maintenance costs associated with preferred alternative come to $477.5 million per year, a decrease of about $729,000 compared to current spending.

The agencies have opened a 45-day public comment period and will hold a series of public hearings around the region, including a stop at the Red Lion Hotel in Lewiston on March 17 from 4-8 p.m. The document is available at www.nwd.usace.army.mil/CRSO/#top.

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.