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Is Dam Removal Best Path for Salmon?

by Miguel Llanos, Newhouse News Service and AP
MSNBC - November 9, 1999

Babbitt swings sledgehammer but other officials not so sure

It’s become a mantra for salmon lovers: Tear down the dams, and they will come. That’s proving to be the case in Maine and California where old dams have been breached and runs restored. But while Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has joined the cause, even swinging a sledgehammer, other federal officials are advising that a better salmon strategy is restoring the habitat along rivers, not removing dams.

Babbitt on monday unveiled a $50 million plan that will see five California dams removed and others altered. The idea is to replenish rare runs of chinook salmon and steelhead in Battle Creek, a major tributary to the Sacramento River.

The Interior Department describes the creek as "the first and perhaps most critical stream in California in which several species of salmon will again return to their primordial spawning grounds."

Babbitt took part in a similar project last summer, bringing down a sledgehammer on a dam on Butte Creek, another Sacramento River tributary. A few months later, the Interior Department says, 20,000 salmon were spawning above the sites where it and three other dams were removed.

The Battle Creek work will remove five diversion dams and enlarge salmon ladders on three other dams.


A similar experience in Maine has seen Atlantic salmon return to the waters above the site of a 162-year-old dam torn down earlier this year. Striped bass have come back too, in such numbers that fly fishermen have been having a field day on the upper Kennebec River.

The removal of the 24-foot-high Edwards Dam has completed the rebirth of what was historically such a rich fishery that early colonial settlers grew weary of eating fish.

The Edwards became the first hydroelectric dam in the country ordered removed by the U.S. government against its owners’ wishes. The first stage involved cleaning up the Kennebec, which along one stretch was so polluted it was practically an open sewer. After the cleanup, attention turned toward to the closest dam to the Atlantic, the Edwards.

Built to power mills, the dam was about 40 miles upstream from the Atlantic and stretched 917 feet across the Kennebec, blocking salmon, shad, herring and other fish from reaching their spawning grounds upstream.


The "down with dams" movement doesn’t hope to decomission every dam, just older ones that block threatened or endangered fish. But while it’s enjoyed momentum recently, the movement might soon run into a roadblock.

Just seven months ago, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency that directs salmon recovery, called breaching four dams along the Snake River in the Pacific Northwest the surest way to restore endangered salmon and steelhead trout.

Now agency officials, citing new findings on the key role of habitat restoration, suggest that the region instead invest more money and make a much greater effort to restore the rivers and streams in which salmon spawn.

Will Stelle, regional director of the fisheries service, last month told state, tribal and federal officials that restoring streamside habitat and improving water quality would be the most effective ways to rebuild salmon populations.

"If we do not improve all the river systems draining into the Columbia and the Snake, we will not be successful in recovering salmon," Stelle said.

Top officials of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration - the two other federal agencies most closely involved in Northwest salmon recovery - echo that position.

Government scientists have spent three years studying whether breaching four dams on the lower Snake River would be the best way to save endangered fish. The dams would be breached by removing the earthen portions, allowing the river to flow freely around them.


The prospect of making habitat restoration the top priority offers a way out for federal agencies reluctant to anger industrial users of the river system and other supporters of dams. But such efforts would bring their own pain:


Federal officials acknowledge that such measures could be no less expensive or controversial than breaching dams, which would cost an estimated $1 billion.

"The political pressure that is being put on decision-makers not to breach dams is going to be transferred from dams to habitat," said Brian Gorman, a fisheries service spokesman. "Those people whose oxen will be gored by the decision to put the burden on habitat improvement will complain as loudly as those that were worried about the dams."

The new thinking about salmon recovery is outlined in a document called the "4H Paper," which examines the four key factors that determine salmon survival: harvest, hatcheries, habitat and hydropower production.

Federal officials said the effort seeks to lay out options for the region and stimulate discussion about what to do for all Columbia Basin salmon, not just the endangered and threatened Snake River stocks. In theory, at least, the report does not prescribe what should be done.

"We want to take to the region a range of options that you can mix and match," said Lorraine Bodi, a senior policy adviser for the BPA who helped draft the paper.


Officials at several federal agencies declined to discuss specifics of the draft document, but it highlights four alternatives for saving salmon in the Columbia River Basin, a document obtained by The Oregonian newspaper shows.

Though the report makes no cost estimates, any of the four options would increase the scale of current recovery efforts, which cost about $500 million a year.

Three of the alternatives - breaching the four dams, sharply reducing salmon harvests or doing both - have little federal support, said officials involved in preparing the 4H Paper.

One reason: Recent improvements to help fish get past dams, coupled with agreements to increase river flows, have dramatically improved salmon survival. Any additional gain in survival rates from just breaching the dams would not be enough to save spring/summer chinook, Idaho’s most important salmon stock.

Another: Harvest of Snake River salmon has been cut so drastically that further cutbacks could not restore fish runs.

"You can get some improvements in harvest and hydro, but it would not be that much," said Bodi of the BPA. "You have to improve habitat to get recovery. That’s what this analysis is showing."


The fourth option presented in the 4H Paper - the one federal agencies appear to favor - calls for leaving dams in place but increasing spending on other measures that help salmon, including:


The draft was presented to Clinton administration officials earlier this month. And while President Bill Clinton hasn’t weighed in publicly he did make a major announcement last Friday on habitat protection, expanding a national wildlife refuge to include critical lands surrounding the Columbia River’s Hanford Reach, the last free flowing stretch of the Columbia River in the United States.

The 51-mile stretch of river runs through the Department of Energy’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation and provides a migration corridor and critical spawning habitat for fall chinook salmon.

American Rivers, which named the Hanford Reach the most endangered river in North America in 1998, praised the move. "This is a critical step towards protecting salmon habitat in Pacific Northwest," said the conservation group’s president, Rebecca Wodder.

Clinton’s announcement transfers management of 57,000 acres of the Wahluke Slope to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Saddle Mountain National Wildlife Refuge.

The Department of Energy has owned the Hanford Nuclear Reservation since 1943. Ironically, the use of the Wahluke Slope and other lands as buffers has protected the Hanford Reach, which provides habitat to the only harvestable runs of chinook salmon left in the region.


Rob Masonis, who watches Northwest hydropower programs for American Rivers, doesn’t believe the Hanford announcement in itself represents a move away from dam breaching, but he is worried about the reported draft document.

The talk had been that the "federal family" was moving towards a habitat focus, he said, adding that "we’re concerned about this development" because there’s "scant scientific support for a habitat only approach" to protecting salmon.

Masonis argued that habitat restoration is vital, but so too are some dam removals. And while the latter commitment appears to be lacking, he said, at least federal officials are making clear to farmers, ranchers and others that a habitat focus would mean significant restrictions on water use.

"That’s a message the public has not yet received," he added, "and it was something that needed to be said."

by Miguel Llanos
Is Dam Removal Best Path for Salmon?
MSNBC Newhouse News Service and The Associated Press, November 9, 1999

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