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4 Dams Will Stay for Now

by Jim Barnett and Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, July 19, 2000

A top White House official will tell Congress today that four dams on the Lower Snake River will stay in place while the federal government pursues other strategies to save endangered salmon in the Columbia River Basin.

The testimony by George Frampton, chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, is the clearest signal yet of the Clinton administration's course in an environmental debate that has divided the Northwest for five years.

Although Frampton doesn't rule out a future decision to breach dams, he plans to tell the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that the administration's recovery plan does not include a request to Congress for authority to do so.

"This document will not subscribe to the premise championed by some that the region faces a simple choice between breaching and not breaching," Frampton writes in a draft of his testimony released by Trout Unlimited, a conservation group.

His testimony also indicates that the White House supports a proposal, outlined this spring by the regional director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, to reconsider removing dams in five to 10 years if other steps fail to improve salmon runs.

Advocates of dam breaching said they were disappointed. Although a formal decision scheduled for release July 27 could contain important details that Frampton will not address today, advocates said the administration's direction is clear.

"We know what they're not going to do," said Jeff Curtis, Western conservation director in Portland for Trout Unlimited. "They're not going to breach the dams."

Samuel N. Penney, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe, said a decision to leave the dams in place probably means extinction for some runs of salmon and steelhead. Four populations of the fish, all listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, navigate the dams to spawn in Idaho and Eastern Oregon.

"The alarm on the extinction clock has gone off, and we do not have five or 10 years of precious time to waste," Penney said.

Historically, as many as 16 million salmon and steelhead returned each year to the Columbia River Basin to spawn. Today, about 1 million adult fish are making it back to the spawning grounds, and most are hatchery-bred.

Will Stelle, the regional fisheries service director, will join Frampton at the hearing. He will outline the agency's recovery plan for improving habitat and reducing mortality of young salmon.

Aides to Frampton and Stelle continued to refine their testimony into the evening Tuesday. But people familiar with the work said the drafts obtained by The Oregonian accurately reflected what the officials planned to say.

"There may be some fine-tuning, but the overall direction seems right," said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the fisheries service in Seattle.

In his draft testimony, Frampton says federal scientists will keep tabs on the number of fish that return to spawn each year. If the numbers fall short of specific recovery targets, the question can be revisited.

"Every measure remains on the table, and the question of whether the most dramatic actions will indeed need to be taken will be determined by the condition of the fish," Frampton writes.

In the meantime, the administration will continue planning for the engineering and economic difficulties that would be posed by removing the enormous earthen berms that hold back the river, he writes.

The energy committee is stacked with Western Republicans opposed to breaching. Among them are Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., and Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash. Gorton has made the dams an issue in his re-election campaign this year.

Gorman said Frampton was prepared for a tough session.

"The senators were going to ask Frampton what's up with the dams," Gorman said. "Why play footsy with them and be coy when we know what's up with the dams?"

Issue controversial

The question of whether to breach Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams has roiled communities throughout the interior Northwest, pitting local and regional economic interests against a national interest in protecting natural resources.

The four dams produce about 5 percent of the Northwest's electricity and are among the region's lowest-cost resources. Slack water backed up by the dams makes the Snake navigable as far east as Lewiston, Idaho.

The question of dam breaching has become a leading cause for national environmental groups. In a campaign directed from the Northwest and from Washington, D.C., the environmental groups say breaching would not bring economic devastation and is required to save salmon.

The details of the recovery plan that Stelle will outline include:

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

On Tuesday, conservationists and tribal leaders vowed to fight a recommendation against breaching.

Don Sampson, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents four tribes with treaty rights to Columbia River salmon and steelhead, said the tribes are considering legal action against the federal government.

Sampson said the federal government is "squandering" an enormous investment in science, which he said concludes that harvestable levels of salmon will not return unless Snake River dams are breached. "Their position is not legally defensible."

Jim Barnett and Jonathan Brinckman
4 Dams Will Stay for Now
The Oregonian, July 19, 2000

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