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Snake Dams Will Stand for 10 or 15 Years -- At Least

by John Hughes, Associated Press
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 19, 2000

Saying dam breaching would bring risk and uncertainties, the Clinton administration's top environmental official today assured Pacific Northwest lawmakers that the Snake River dams will stand for at least a decade.

"While it is tempting to think of a silver bullet -- a single, visible, tangible action that by itself will solve all our problems -- it is ultimately a disservice to the challenge we face to embrace such a simplistic approach," said George Frampton, acting chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Breaching the four dams would do nothing to recover imperiled salmon in the Columbia River downstream, some of which are at a greater risk than the Snake River stocks, Frampton said in testimony prepared for submission to the Senate energy and water subcommittee.

The subcommittee's planned meeting was canceled today, but Frampton still released his testimony.

Agency heads are expected to decide in five to 10 years whether dam removal is needed, though the dams would not come down for more than a decade under the most aggressive scenario administration officials envision.

The officials are telling Congress that they will recommend dam removal only if other steps, such as habitat improvement, fail to bolster fish runs.

But Republicans in the Pacific Northwest are not satisfied with such assurances and want an ironclad guarantee the dams will stand for generations.

Frampton and Will Stelle, the National Marine Fisheries Service's top official in the Pacific Northwest, say in their testimony to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee panel that they want to change hatchery operations, restrict harvests and increase stream flows to help the fish runs recover, rather than breach dams.

Stelle said in a draft of his testimony that Snake dam removal "has become for some the litmus test for salmon recovery. It should not be so."

There is "scientific uncertainty" about whether dam breaching is needed; only Snake stocks -- not other listed fish -- would benefit from breaching; dam removal could not be implemented quickly; and the high cost of removal would preclude the agency from taking other actions, Stelle said.

"Dam removal may in the end prove to be necessary, but it is not the place to start," he said.

Trout Unlimited, an environmental group, obtained a draft of Stelle's testimony and released it Tuesday.

"We do not view this as good news," said Jeff Curtis, western conservation director for Trout Unlimited in Portland, Ore. "While dam breaching is not the silver bullet, it's one of the bullets you need."

Brian Gorman, a spokesman for Stelle, said Stelle's testimony had been changed considerably since the draft, but the substance of the testimony remains the same.

Federal agencies in coming weeks are expected to release two draft plans that will set a course for the recovery of 13 endangered and threatened salmon stocks all across the Columbia Basin.

The two documents, the biological opinion and the basin-wide Recovery Strategy -- formerly known as the All-H paper -- will together be the most comprehensive plan federal officials say they have ever proposed for salmon recovery in the basin.

The draft documents could become final later this year, but they will not settle the larger debate about the 100-foot-high Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor dams.

Environmentalists plan to file lawsuits and try to get a judge to order what the administration is initially refusing to do.

John Hughes, Associated Press
Dam Decision May Give Each Side Something
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 19, 2000

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