Salmon Can't Wait: If Dams Stay,by Editors
The Clinton administration, bowing to political realities in Congress, has said it won't support breaching four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington state to boost salmon recovery, at least for now.
Environmentalists, Indian tribes and fishermen's organizations are disappointed, but perhaps they shouldn't be. The decision means the Northwest and the federal government will have to redouble their commitment to other strategies for helping endangered fish runs, some of which promise faster and more certain benefits.
Breaching the four dams - that is, demolishing their earthen portions so that the lower Snake River would run free - is an idea that has moved to the center of the debate over salmon restoration. It doesn't really belong there. Breaching the dams might, as many biologists contend, improve the odds of recovery for four species of salmon listed as endangered. But dam breaching is not a silver bullet. Even if it were necessary, which is far from certain, it would not be sufficient.
The best argument for breaching the dams is that Snake River salmon are so close to extinction that they can't wait for complete scientific certainty or a full political consensus - they'll vanish from the river while people continue debating the biological benefits and economic effects of removing the dams.
But placing too much faith in dam-breaching entails similar risks. Dramatic results would be expected to flow from a single drastic and expensive act, while less attention would be paid to effective but less spectacular efforts to promote salmon recovery.
Dam breaching, moreover, would not reverse the decline of salmon populations overnight. Even if removing the dams yielded results as positive as proponents expect, the benefits would not materialize for years. Indeed, the effects might be temporarily negative as the lower Snake and Columbia Rivers flushed themselves of the sediment that would be released from behind the dams. Throughout this period, the region would be congratulating itself for having made a big sacrifice to save salmon. That sacrifice would be used as an excuse to avoid other difficult and costly actions to boost salmon populations. And then, if the effects of dam breaching proved disappointing, the region would have lost more time that could have been used to implement other strategies.
With dam breaching off the agenda at least temporarily, other strategies will become more prominent. These strategies will be outlined in a recovery plan to be announced this week by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Included will be such unglamorous programs as salmon habitat improvement, harvest restrictions and changes in hatchery practices. By deciding that its salmon recovery plan won't include dam-breaching, the Clinton administration has strengthened the hand of those in the Northwest who care most about restoring healthy fish runs. Since the federal government insists on keeping the dams in place, it is obliged to assist the region with the recovery strategies endorsed by the fisheries service.
Dam breaching, the administration has made clear, remains an option. It can be revived if recovery efforts focused on habitat, harvest and hatcheries fail or are given insufficient support. The message to Congress, where support for dam breaching has always been thin, is that the dams can be saved by ensuring that alternate recovery efforts are adequate. And the message to Northwesterners is that there is no single, simple solution to the salmon problem. There remain serious efforts to be made before calling in the bulldozers.
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