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Bush Touts Salmon Plan

by Robert McClure & Lisa Stiffler
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 23, 2003

President supports dams, raises $1.4 million for campaign

BURBANK -- Against a backdrop of golden hayfields, green orchards and the imposing gray of Eastern Washington's Ice Harbor Dam, President Bush yesterday argued that the Northwest's salmon can be saved without tearing down a single power-generating dam.

But the president chose to make his pitch in front of a dam that has violated water-quality standards for 39 consecutive days -- making pooled water behind it so hot that one fish scientist compared it to a life-sapping sauna for young salmon.

Later, Bush held a half-hour meeting with business and economic leaders in Seattle before holding an impromptu news conference. There the president touched on a wide variety of issues, including the state's economy, Iraq and the Mideast.

As he launched a swing through Washington to sway suburban voters and collect some $1.4 million in campaign cash at billionaire Craig McCaw's home, Bush in a morning speech near the Tri-Cities pointed to this year's high salmon returns as proof that salmon can co-exist with the dams.

"We can have good, clean hydroelectric power and salmon restoration going on at the same time," Bush told a crowd of several hundred supporters in a reception area walled off by bales of hay. "We have shown the world that we can have good quality of life and at the same time continue to save the salmon."

Not so fast, critics said. They cited research suggesting that most of the recent improvements in Washington's salmon runs are attributable to changes in ocean circulation patterns far beyond the control of the Bush administration.

"George Bush taking credit for increased salmon populations is like a sailor taking credit for the tides," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., a rival presidential candidate. "No amount of photo ops can let George Bush off the hook for the destructive environmental record he's spawned."

In his 20-minute salmon speech at the morning stop near the Tri-Cities, Bush repeatedly called for federal salmon managers to cooperate with locals in Eastern Washington, where he polled well in 2000 despite losing the state to Al Gore.

Bush marveled at the bounty seen by the Lewis and Clark expedition that first explored the Northwest for the United States. Estimates place the number of chinook returning to the Snake and Columbia Rivers in the mid-1800s from 5 million to 9 million annually. The average annual count for the past 10 years was just under 400,000.

"We're developing technologies to save salmon. We're getting better at it," Bush said. "Look, we're concerned about the fish. We're also concerned about the citizens who depend on the dams."

The dams kill young salmon migrating to the ocean in a gantlet of spinning metal blades, poisonous gases and water pressure changes that can blow their eyes from their sockets.

To avoid that, dam managers now collect about four-fifths of the salmon and put them into fish tanks on barges, which move salmon past the fish-killing dams. However, scientists using elaborate tracking techniques can tell that many of the transported salmon later die after spending time in the crowded tanks on the barges, probably because of stress or disease.

After salmon counts plummeted low enough in the 1990s that several dozen salmon runs received protection under the Endangered Species Act, their numbers have started to bounce back in recent years. Cold water welling up in the North Pacific spurred an explosion in the small creatures that provide a hearty banquet for salmon, improving their survival rates, scientists say.

Only 7,990 adult chinook salmon passed through Ice Harbor Dam in 1995 on their way to spawn. By last year, the number had climbed to 127,062.

Bush administration officials acknowledge that improved ocean conditions over the past few years have been largely responsible for the uptick in salmon returns.

But they say the Bush administration deserves credit for increasing spending for salmon recovery. Bush's budget request for next year is $707 million, an increase of nearly one-quarter over the amount appropriated by Congress in President Clinton's final year in office.

In addition, dams are being tweaked to better allow salmon to pass through unscathed.

All that, though, still leaves the Snake and Columbia rivers looking more like huge, long lakes where water at this time of year sits and cooks instead of running downstream.

For most of July and all of August so far, the water temperature at the Ice Harbor Dam reservoir has exceeded state water quality limits. For the past 39 days straight, the water was hotter than the state limit of 68 degrees.

"It's just like putting you into a sauna," said Joseph Cloud, a University of Idaho biology professor.

To thrive, salmon require water that is quite cold. Sixty-eight degrees "is so warm relative to the salmonids, it's just off the chart," Cloud said.

Warm water can kill the fish outright. It can also hamper their immune system, suppressing their ability to fend off disease, researchers say. Fish eggs are damaged before they're even spawned, and baby fish exposed to warm water grow and develop at abnormal rates. The salmon won't enter tributaries when the water is too warm, throwing off the timing of spawning.

"It's affecting their survival on a day-to-day basis," said Gary Thorgaard, a Washington State University professor in the School of Biological Sciences.

Environmental groups have been battling to force the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the Ice Harbor Dam, to comply with state water quality standards.

In 2001, a federal district court judge in Oregon told the agency it was legally required to follow the standards.

In January, the same court ruled that the corps was making progress on plans to remedy the situation, a decision that the environmentalists have appealed.

A corps spokeswoman would not answer questions on the issue, referring all calls to the U.S. Department of Justice. A spokesman there did not return a message left yesterday afternoon.

Critics challenged the notion that salmon recovery could succeed with the current operation of dams.

A completely undammed Snake River would allow the fish to pass naturally, environmentalists and Indian tribes have long argued.

But four months before the 2000 election the Clinton administration took that option off the table. Bush has consistently opposed breaching the dams.

In a free-flowing river, juvenile salmon are swept downstream to the ocean. With the river dammed and no flow apparent to guide the young fish, they must work harder to get to the sea, said Andre Talbot, a senior fisheries scientist with the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission in Portland.

Indian tribes and environmentalists say they're willing to talk about leaving the dams in place.

"We would get behind a recovery plan that is credible and effective and leaves the dams in place," said Rob Masonis, director of the Northwest office of American Rivers, a conservation organization. "We have yet to see that plan."

Focusing on other topics at his Seattle news conference, Bush elaborated on Iraq and the Middle East.

Saying that the United States would "stay the course" in Iraq, the president blamed the continuing violence on "a foreign element moving into Iraq."

Bush called them "al-Qaida type fighters" who hate freedom. "They want to fight us there because they can't stand the thought of a free society in the Middle East."

Bush said his administration is working with the United Nations to help bring peace to the country, and he predicted that U.S. allies would send reinforcements. "There will be more foreign troops in Iraq," he said. "Iraq is turning out to be a continuing battle in the war on terrorism," Bush said.

On the Mideast, he elaborated on a White House statement that the U.S. Treasury had frozen the assets of five European-based organizations believed to raise money for Hamas. The freeze came after Tuesday's bus bomb in Jerusalem.

He urged other nations to cut off funding for a group he said was "committed to violence against Israelis and to undermining progress toward peace."

"What the United States will continue to do is to remind those who love peace and yearn for freedom in that part of the world to join together and to battle those few who want to destroy the ambitions of many," he said.

"I will continue to work with leaders in the neighborhood to encourage them to cut off the money and the aid and the help that goes to these terrorist organizations, all of which aim to destroy any hope for peace."

Bush also said he was concerned about Washington state's lackluster economy.

Standing on the sunlit tarmac in front of Air Force One, he pointed to the state's jobless rate -- the third-worst in the country -- and its slumping industries. "This is a resource-based state with a significant high-tech component," he said, "and both those sectors have been hit very hard."

Inside the airport's terminal, he had a brief meeting with local Republicans and business representatives. The group, including former Republican Sen. Slade Gorton and representatives from Weyerhaeuser and Wells Fargo, talked about ways to stimulate growth.

"The federal government can help, but the state of Washington has got to also set the conditions necessary for people to want to be here," Bush said, and suggested the Legislature overhaul its workers compensation system.

Robert McClureand Lisa Stiffler
P-I reporter Matthew Craft contributed to this report.
Bush Touts Salmon Plan
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 23, 2003

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