Bush's Opposition to Dam Breaching
by Erik Robinson
On salmon, President-elect George W. Bush has made it clear he opposes breaching four federal dams on the lower Snake River. A Bush spokesman in Austin, Texas, last week reiterated that.
But a biological opinion on Columbia Basin salmon runs issued earlier this month by the National Marine Fisheries Service could make it trickier for the new administration to avoid considering dam breaching if wild salmon and steelhead don't show signs of rebounding within three years.
"I think the Clinton administration has very neatly created the agenda that the Bush administration will have to follow," said Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.
The legally binding opinion declared that eight of the 12 imperiled runs of Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead are jeopardized by the ongoing operation of the federal hydropower system. Without substantial habitat improvements, hatchery reforms and hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending, the new administration could be forced by a judge enforcing the Endangered Species Act to consider dam breaching.
Even the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates the dams, and whose officers have been reluctant to support breaching, has acknowledged the challenge.
"If we do not get the funding to implement this, then dam breaching may be the only thing we can do," Brig. Gen. Carl Strock, the corps' Northwestern Division engineer, said during a press conference announcing the Clinton administration's salmon recovery plan.
Interest groups on all sides of the salmon issue will be watching to see whether Bush pushes ahead with the corps' Columbia River channel-deepening plan and whether he puts the weight of his administration behind the National Marine Fisheries Service as it reviews plans by cities, ports, developers, loggers and farmers to protect listed salmon and steelhead.
Bush has said he will support adequate funding for salmon restoration. That promise will be put to the test soon. The Bonneville Power Administration has proposed spending $ 100 million more per year to restore salmon. Counting the revenue from sales of hydroelectricity that it forgoes when it spills more water over dams to speed the migration of young salmon, the BPA expects to spend more than $ 500 million on its salmon program next year.
Tribal governments agree with conservation groups that dam breaching must be the cornerstone of salmon recovery efforts in the region, but differences have emerged between the two on treatment of hatcheries.
Scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service under Clinton have been cautious about mixing hatchery fish with naturally spawning populations. They worry that fish raised in concrete-lined hatchery pools won't have the evolutionary staying power of salmon and steelhead adapted to wild streams.
Many wild-fish advocates side with the federal scientists, but some tribal and state scientists aren't willing to so readily discard a hatchery system that produces the bulk of salmon that now return to the Columbia Basin.
In that sense, one tribal representative said, the Bush administration could be good news for tribes.
"President-elect Bush has a history of advocating for states' rights or local control," said Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River InterTribal Fish Commission in Portland. "When he sees the states and tribes are aligning, I don't see how he can overlook that."
Bush has made it clear what he will not do, breach the dams, but tribes will be watching to see what he will do to restore salmon, Hudson said.
"The Bush administration needs to make a significant investment in terms of faith-building, trust-building and sincerity on an issue that obviously is very important to the region."
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