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Bush Pledges Support for Farmers

by Hil Anderson
Insight Magazine, September 8, 2004

LOS ANGELES -- The administration this week is expected to release a new recovery plan for the controversial Snake River's salmon population that should keep the dams standing and no doubt delight the farmers who use the river to irrigate their land and haul their crops to market.

The Bush administration has reported an increase in the number of salmon on the inland Idaho river that should allow the president to forego the political risk of keeping the option to remove the four dams on the economically important waterway.

"Although it is undergoing final review, this draft biological opinion is expected to result in the most significant improvements in the federal dams since the Endangered Species Act was enacted 30 years ago," Bob Lohn, the lead federal official in the management of Northwest fish stocks, said in a statement last week. "This is a win-win situation for the salmon and the citizens of the Northwest."

Election years are certainly times when incumbent politicians want to banner as many "win-win" situations as possible, and new statistics showing a recovery in the number of salmon and steelhead trout migrating upstream past the four dams in question give the Bush team the positive environmental statistical ammunition they need to take the option of breaching the dams off the table.

"As a result of the success of salmon protection and recovery efforts, NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) is expecting to be able to conclude that the proposed actions by federal agencies in the biological opinion are not likely to jeopardize (endangered) fish," Lohn's statement continued.

What the opinion will state, according to reports, is that upgraded fish ladders that assist the fish in getting around the dams have indeed helped. And an accompanying improvement in ocean conditions has caused a cyclical boom in salmon and steelhead populations that make it no longer necessary to go so far as to tear down the dams that local farmers staunchly contend they depend upon.

Keeping the dams in place will fit well with the Bush administration's commitment to bolstering the U.S. energy supply by keeping the dams' hydroelectric production intact, and at the same time mollifying the growers that are seen both as a coveted political constituency and reliable producers of overseas agricultural exports.

The president has repeatedly said in his visits to the Northwest over the years that agriculture is a keystone of the U.S. economy and requires a solid infrastructure that will maintain prodigious farm output.

In an Aug. 13 speech in Portland, Ore., Bush explained why he was authorizing funds to dredge the Columbia River channel, which serves as the primary export point for wheat and other crops grown in eastern Oregon and Washington, and in Idaho as well.

"Last year, more than $15 billion worth of cargo traveled through the Columbia River ports, including more wheat than America shipped on any other river," Bush said. "If you are a wheat farmer, that's good news."

The Snake is similar to the Columbia in that it provides not only irrigation to arid southern Idaho, but also is used by barges moving the area's bounty to the Columbia and on to the sea.

In the West, however, agriculture and environmentalism can often find themselves butting heads over water as growing populations and a long-running drought puts increasing pressure on limited water supplies.

Bush, in fact, interceded on behalf of agriculture in 2002 after federal officials shut off irrigation water to fields along the Klamath River in southern Oregon. The move was aimed at making sure the Klamath had enough water in it to keep salmon alive; however it touched off a war of words over whether or not wildlife or the regional economy would be the primary beneficiary of the Klamath's dwindling water.

The much-debated decision to keep the water flowing to Klamath farmers was accompanied by a spate of grants and projects aimed at improving the water supply in the region; however critics characterized the moves as nothing more than political stalling that failed to address a simple growing imbalance between supply and demand.

The anticipated new policy on the Snake River, which includes continued upgrades to the Snake's salmon habitat, has been given a similar reception from environmental organizations. They have taken the position that there is literally no effective way for the fish to get way around the dams, and the structures should at least be partially removed in order to allow salmon to reach their spawning grounds in numbers high enough to sustain their populations.

The contention by NOAA that salmon were on the rebound was criticized last week as being largely off base because the same cyclical ocean conditions that allowed fish populations to grow in the past few years would someday take a turn for the worst.

"The case for breaching is as strong as ever," Earl Weber, a fisheries biologist with the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, told the Idaho Statesman.

The green groups, which have led the long fight for dam removal, have presented the press and public with thoughtful studies that predict the economic losses caused by dam breaching would be quickly made up by improvement in tourism and other economic sectors, and have downplayed the dams' hydropower output as a relatively small part of the region's energy inventory.

But predictions on the economy are generally taken with a grain of salt. And it would be unlikely that Bush would now go out on a limb with his political base in the conservative West, particularly when nature has cooperated in such a timely fashion by beefing up the schools of salmon that must get past the dams on the Snake River.

Hil Anderson is Western Region Editor for UPI, a sister news agency of Insight.
Bush Pledges Support for Farmers
Insight Magazine, September 8, 2004

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