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Bush Proposes Salmon Plans

by Les Blumenthal, Washington, D.C., Bureau
Tri-City Herald, December 1, 2004

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration concluded Tuesday that the massive hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers do not jeopardize the survival of threatened and endangered salmon and proposed a 10-year plan for restoring the runs without breaching the dams.

The plan, known as a biological opinion, still has to pass muster before a skeptical federal judge in Portland, who warned that an earlier version could lead to a "train wreck" unless changed. Federal officials say few changes were made, but they were prepared to defend their latest effort before U.S. District Judge James Redden.

The plan fulfills a campaign promise President Bush made four years ago that four dams on the lower Snake River never would be knocked down.

This $13 million weir is being fabricated at a Vancouver, Wash., shop and is to be installed at Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River next spring. Instead, the new plan relies on making improvements at the Snake River dams and four other dams downstream on the Columbia to aid the migration of juvenile salmon. By the end of the decade, the Army Corps of Engineers, plans on installing "fish slides" or weirs at all eight dams that will guide the young salmon away from turbines and spillways.

The plan also calls for spilling water over the dams and increasing river flows to flush the fish downstream to the ocean, for continued barging of fish past the dams and for habitat improvements.

In a letter to the citizens of the Northwest, the administration said the new plan does not represent any "reduction in our commitment" to restoring the runs.

"The biological opinion provides a foundation for recovery," said Robert Lohn, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is part of the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration. The plan, Lohn said, relied on the "best available science."

But tribal officials and environmentalists were quick to criticize the administration's proposal.

"You cannot pretend the dams don't jeopardize salmon recovery," said Olney Patt Jr., executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

Federal officials declined to put a price tag on their new plan but said in the end it may cost slightly less than the $600 million now spent annually on the recovery efforts.

The salmon runs have been protected under the Endangered Species Act since the 1990s. A Clinton administration plan, adopted in 2000, left open the possibility the dams could be breached if all other efforts to restore the runs failed. The Clinton plan outlined almost 200 steps that needed to be taken before dam breaching was considered.

The 31 federally operated dams in the Columbia River Basin produce more than 40 percent of the region's electricity. (bluefish adds: The four Lower Snake River dams produce about 4 percent of the region's electricity.)

Judge Redden, in a lawsuit filed by environmentalists, tossed out the Clinton plan because there were no guarantees the actions it contained would be taken and ordered the Bush administration to come up with a new plan.

The new biological opinion found the dams' existence was a fait accompli and that only Congress could order their removal.

"It is clear that each of the dams already exist," the biological opinion concluded, adding that "pre-existing projects" were beyond NOAA Fisheries' "discretion or control."

Rather than consider breaching the dams, the Bush plan concluded the focus should be on the "least amount of adverse effects to fish that can be achieved given the existing structures."

Given the constraints of the Endangered Species Act, dam breaching never was "fully on the table," Lohn said during a conference call with reporters. "Removing dams would require congressional authorization. It was never within the reach of the biological opinion."

Lohn said his agency was confident that if the new weirs were installed at the dams and other steps were taken the salmon runs would survive.

"The agencies were able to get to no jeopardy with the dams in place," he said.

Lohn said a weir installed at Lower Granite Dam has boosted juvenile survival rates from 93 percent to 98 percent. The weirs cost about $15 million to $25 million per dam.

Lohn and others said a combination of improved ocean conditions and other steps taken on the rivers have "significantly" increased the number of returning salmon.

The biological opinion, however, noted that even under the "most optimistic scenario," the improved ocean conditions could "mask" a failure to address other steps that needed to be taken to restore the runs.

Eventually, the federal agencies will have to come up with a more specific recovery plan for the salmon that spells out in greater detail what needs to be done. Lohn said those recovery plans would be developed on a "sub-basin" level.

Yet, Lohn insisted NOAA Fisheries was under "no obligation" to ensure that species didn't go extinct, adding the agency had little power to enforce or pay for its recovery plans.

The earlier version of NOAA Fisheries' biological opinion has been criticized in a letter to Bush signed by 250 scientists who said it was scientifically indefensible and would actually lead to the extinction of some of the runs. A group of more than 100 Democratic and Republican congressmen also has written Bush, saying the initial plan just "redefined the problem rather than fixed it."

Environmentalists vowed to challenge the new plan.

"The plan is a Trojan horse," said Charles Gauvin, president of Trout Unlimited. "Instead of being a salmon recovery tool, it's a backdoor effort to reinterpret the Endangered Species Act and downgrade the requirements for protecting salmon."

Mortality in the Hydrosystem Corridor
Downstream Migration of Juvenile Fish from Idaho
  Average (1994-1999)
Direct Mortality Fall Chinook Spring Chinook Steelhead
Columbia/Snake Dams
(Mortality from 8 dams)
12% 20% 17%
Columbia/Snake Reservoirs
(Mortality from 8 reservoirs)
81% 40% 41%
Indirect Mortality ? ? ?

-- National Marine Fisheries Service, December 21, 2000 (more)

Les Blumenthal, Herald Washington, D.C., Bureau
Bush Proposes Salmon Plans
Tri-City Herald, December 1, 2004

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