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Bush Aide Touts Salmon Success

by Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
The Columbian, January 27, 2004

Extra $10 million for recovery proposed

BONNEVILLE DAM -- President Bush's senior environmental adviser used a backdrop of eight cabin-size hydroelectric turbines Monday to announce the president is proposing an extra $10 million to improve stream habitat for Pacific coast salmon.

James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, pointed to recent strong returns of Columbia Basin salmon as evidence that past investments are working.

"We must celebrate our successes, to give us the impetus to carry forward and complete the rest," Connaughton said during a press conference at the Washington Shore Visitor Center at Bonneville Dam. "This administration and president pledged to take the actions to keep that progress going."

A group of a dozen protesters standing outside the dam, including one dressed as a sockeye salmon, had a different perspective.

Members of Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition of conservation and fishing groups, renewed their call for the government to breach four federal dams on the lower Snake River in Eastern Washington.

Although protesters endorsed Bush's proposal to increase federal spending for stream restoration projects, they criticized the administration for failing to consider a major overhaul to the hydroelectric system.

Bush has flatly rejected the idea of breaching the four dams on the lower Snake.

"We'd like to see the river returned to a more normative state," said Brady Bennon, the coalition's outreach director. "Technological fixes at the dams can only go so far."

Connaughton, who called hydroelectricity "the engine of this economy out here," said the president is committed to community-driven stream restoration projects rather than dam-breaching.

"It's through continuing economic growth that we can afford to pay for these conservation efforts," Connaughton said in an interview. "In the absence of economic growth or greater revenues, we lose our ability to provide money for salmon recovery."

The Pacific Coast Salmon Recovery Fund, which Bush proposes to fund at a level of $100 million next year, has been tapped over the past four years to pay for a series of stream restoration projects in partnership with state, local and tribal groups.

In Southwest Washington, the fund has helped pay for more than 60 projects in the lower Columbia River and its tributaries, said Jeff Breckel, executive director of the Lower Columbia Fish Recovery Board.

Restoring imperiled salmon runs requires money for projects big and small, and Connaughton got a glimpse of both on Monday.

Connaughton, who was joined on the tour by Conrad Lautenbacher, director of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, viewed a newly completed salmon bypass chute at Bonneville.

At a cost of $48 million, the 2,800-foot-long concrete chute is supposed to improve the survival of ocean-bound juvenile salmon by 1 to 3 percent.

The chute includes a high-banked concrete turn capable of smoothly carrying fish through the dam at a rate of 5,000 cubic feet of water per second -- a marginally safer journey than sending fish through turbines or over spillways.

Propelling ocean-bound juveniles past the dams has become a key point of contention in salmon recovery.

Diverting water away from turbines in July and August saps the Bonneville Power Administration's ability to generate surplus energy it can sell in California, revenues that could be used to offset electricity bills in the Northwest. Steve Wright, the BPA administrator, pegged the average annual cost of summertime spill at $77 million with negligible benefits to endangered wild fish.

"There's a lot you can do, with a lot less money," Wright said.

Groups defend spills

Conservation groups point out that reducing summertime spill could slash returns of all Columbia stocks by 10,000 fish annually, not just the 15 endangered Snake River fall chinook calculated recently by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. And at least one member of the four-state power council said he's not convinced BPA's most-recent proposals for increased predator control and commercial fishing buyouts goes far enough to offset the salmon that will die without summer spill.

"I did not feel they were adequate," said Larry Cassidy, a Vancouver resident and one of two Washington representatives to the power council.

Although the National Marine Fisheries Service has yet to formally endorse any reduction in summertime spill -- the agency opposed the proposal when BPA broached it late last summer -- Connaughton said he doesn't expect the White House will have to intervene.

"We're following it very closely," he said.

The visitors also toured a much smaller dam about five miles downstream from Bonneville.

Federal funds at use

A few years ago, a group of about 60 landowners at Skamania Landing faced the prospect of having to replace a leaking old dam near the mouth of Duncan Creek.

The replacement dam, completed in 2001, includes a U-shaped channel that enables threatened chum salmon to easily migrate into and out of Duncan Creek during the fall, winter and spring. In the summer, after the salmon leave, the property owners drop the dam's gate to recreate a 22-acre lake for their enjoyment. Property owners agreed to contribute $200,000 toward the $575,000 cost of the dam, with the balance coming from public and private grants -- including the Pacific Coast Salmon Recovery Fund touted by Bush on Monday.

"The project would not have happened without the funding," said Andrew Jansky, a local property owner who helped to engineer the new dam.

Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
Bush Aide Touts Salmon Success
The Columbian, January 27, 2004

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