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Salmon Restoration Begins with Habitat

by Erik Robinson
The Columbian, August 21, 2003

Bush administration favors projects rather than dam breaching

KAMANIA -- Lena's Lake, inaccessible to chum salmon and people alike, is a long way from the national media attention and fanfare that will accompany President Bush's visit to the Pacific Northwest.

But federal officials say it's here, at a dammed lake behind a locked fence, where they expect real progress to be made.

Biologists expect chum salmon will benefit from draining Lena's Lake and restoring the natural creekbed. Across the Columbia River basin, federal officials point to dozens of similar projects intended to offset the environmental damage wrought by a network of federal dams.

Such projects are important, conservationists say, but they pale in comparison to the benefits of removing Snake River dams.

"All those things are worth doing," said Glen Spain, regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "The question is, do they add up to enough? Most scientists have looked at it and said, 'No, they will not result in enough benefit to really address the problem.' It will cost several times the total value of the dams to do those projects, with no certain result."

Bob Lohn, regional administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service, maintains that federal agencies should get some credit for relatively abundant returns of Columbia basin salmon in recent years due to habitat, hatchery and fish-passage improvements at dams.

Lohn acknowledged that salmon have eaten well over the past few years due to persistent cold-water upwelling of ocean nutrients.

Lohn, who will accompany Bush during his visit to Ice Harbor Dam near Pasco on Friday, said the president will reaffirm that it's possible to keep the dams and maintain healthy salmon runs.

"We're not planning to declare victory at this point, but we certainly want to acknowledge improvement," Lohn said.

The administration envisions Lena's Lake as a shining example.

Stopped up by an 8-foot-tall earthen dike in the 1930s, the small, spring-fed lake meanders across a converted cattle pasture before it drops through a culvert to a small creek paralleling the Columbia River.

Remnant populations of spawning chum salmon are already lured to the area by the slightly warmer water temperatures of the springs that feed Hardy and nearby Hamilton creek. Hydrologists are mulling the best way to excavate a reconstructed stream channel running as far as 800 feet toward a confluence with Hardy Creek.

Huge recovery costs
It's expected to cost at least $600,000.

Multiply that cost by dozens or eventually hundreds of similar projects across a basin the size of France, and it's possible to understand why an internal document prepared by federal managers in the last part of the Clinton administration pegged the annual cost of fish recovery at $918 million. The administration has spent roughly $500 million per year on Columbia basin salmon recovery since the NMFS issued its biological opinion on the operation of federal dams in December 2000.

NMFS spokesman Brian Gorman termed the higher figure "an albatross that hangs around the agency," but said it merely represented a wish list.

The biological opinion itself is in legal limbo.

U.S. District Judge James Redden ruled in May that the Endangered Species Act requires the government to provide more certainty that stream restoration projects promised in its plan will actually be completed -- especially by state, tribal or private groups over which the government has little control.

McDermott stands alone
Even though the biological opinion calls for the government to reconsider dam-breaching if the nonbreach strategy falls short, Lohn said only Congress can provide the estimated $1 billion necessary to remove the earthen portions of the four dams on the lower Snake River. U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, a Democrat from Seattle, is alone among major Northwest politicians to express support for dam-breaching.

"You cannot ask federal agencies to carry out something that's beyond their legal authority," Lohn said.

Besides, he noted, Bush made it "very clear" while campaigning in Washington state three years ago that he believes salmon recovery can be accomplished without breaching the dams.

Erik Robinson
Salmon Restoration Begins with Habitat
The Columbian, August 21, 2003

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