Snake Most Endangered River in U.S,
by Les Blumenthal, Washington, D.C., bureau
WASHINGTON - For the second straight year, a national conservation group will rank the lower Snake River the nation's most endangered river as environmentalists, Indian tribes and other organizations seek to convince the White House that breaching four dams may be the only way to save dwindling salmon runs.
American Rivers will make the announcement at a Washington, D.C., press conference Thursday, followed by a march to the gates of the White House led by a giant inflatable salmon and people dressed in salmon costumes and as Lewis and Clark.
The group, which each year ranks the country's most troubled waters, says the four dams on the lower Snake have driven salmon runs to the brink of extinction. Others, of course, disagree, but the ranking underscores the growing controversy over breaching the dams and comes as the administration is nearing a decision later this spring on how best to rebuild salmon populations in the Northwest.
"There's no question it is number one," Rebecca Wodder, president of American Rivers, said in a telephone interview Wednesday of the lower Snake's ranking. "We have lost an entire year, we are a year closer to extinction for these fish and what makes this even more urgent is we have a decision pending."
Usually, American Rivers releases its annual list of most endangered rivers in April. But because the public comment period on proposed plans for saving the salmon runs closes on March 31, the group decided to make an "emergency" announcement now on the lower Snake. The rest of the group's list will be released April 10.
Environmentalists hope to flood the administration with more than 200,000 letters, postcards and e-mails supporting dam breaching before the comment period ends.
"We hope to give some timid bureaucrats some backbone," Wodder said.
The Snake is the largest tributary of the Columbia River. In the early 1800s an estimated 2 million salmon and steelhead spawned in its waters, American Rivers said. Some of the fish traveled more than 900 miles upriver from the Pacific Ocean to spawn in the mountains of Idaho.
But a string of major hydroelectric dams have transformed much of the Columbia and Snake rivers into nothing more than a series of slack-water reservoirs, and the result has been lethal to salmon, the group said.
The four lower Snake dams _ Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite _ were built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1960s and 1970s.
"Every study has shown dam removal is the best and probably only way to restore the salmon," Wodder said.
But the studies are open to different interpretations, and river user groups have suggested an expanded program of barging juvenile fish downstream around the dams might be a better way to rebuild the runs.
"Wodder and her executives should travel from their East Coast offices to visit the lower Snake," said Bruce Lovelin, executive director of the Columbia River Alliance, which opposes dam breaching. "I will act as their personal tour guide and show them a healthy ecosystem and biological diverse habitat, then they will see how foolish their designation is."
Breaching the dams would halt all barge traffic upstream from the Tri-Cities to Lewiston, cut electric power generation in the region by about 5 percent and reduce the amount of irrigation water available to farmers, Lovelin and other critics of eliminating the dams said.
"Wodder and American Rivers are really doing their movement and the people of the Pacific Northwest a major disservice by inaccurately portraying the lower Snake River in this manner," Lovelin said.
Several weeks ago, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, became the first major elected official in the Northwest to endorse breaching of the dams. No member of Congress from the Northwest has endorsed the idea. Congress would have to eventually sign off on any plan for remove the dams.
"I invite American Rivers and the rest of these D.C.-based special interest groups to come out to Washington state and see why our entire state stands behind our farmers, irrigators and agricultural communities in opposing the removal of the Snake River dams," Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., said Wednesday in a statement.
Wodder said, however, that she believed support for breaching the dams was growing.
"It started in the Northwest and it will end in the Northwest," she said. "But all Americans have a stake in this. You don't have to live there to care."
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