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Feds Change Rules for Saving Salmon

by Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, September 10, 2004

When it comes to dams, the federal government has changed the rules to salmon recovery.

Four years ago the fisheries division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration studied the effect federal dams have on threatened salmon and steelhead runs. It issued a biologic opinion that said dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers pose a threat to the continued existence of those runs.

This year the government released a new study that assumed the dams are part of the Columbia River system. Instead of determining whether the dams threaten salmon and steelhead, the agency studied how the operation of the dams affect the fish.

So instead of comparing a plan by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration to operate the dams against a river without dams, the agency considered the operation plan against a river with dams in place but operated in the most fish-friendly fashion.

Brian Gorman, a spokesman for NOAA Fisheries at Seattle, said the agency wasn't able to make the distinction between the existence of dams and their operation four years ago. But the intense effort to understand the decline of salmon runs and come up with a plan to recover them has provided the agency with new science.

"We have a reasonable enough level of confidence that we can make that comparison now and we can assume a different baseline than we have in the past," he said.

Salmon advocates protested the change and called it an attempt by the Bush administration to avoid breaching the four dams on the Snake River, which they believe is the best and only way to recover salmon.

"Instead of relying on sound science, the government relies on a new and legally questionable interpretation of the Endangered Species Act and the crazy notion that the lower Snake River dams are part of the "natural river" environment to justify the backtracking on recovery standards in this plan," said Bill Sedivy of Idaho Rivers United at Boise.

But Gorman said that change alone was not enough to declare the operation of the dams do not pose a threat to salmon. To reach that conclusion he said his agency worked hand in hand with the corps, BPA and Bureau of Reclamation when those agencies developed their dam operation plan. Biologists from NOAA told the other agencies what it would take to reach a no-jeopardy decision and they agreed to do it, according to Gorman.

"We have a commitment from the federal agencies up front to operate the dams in a way that doesn't jeopardize fish," he said.

That commitment includes $600 million in upgrades to the dams that will help pass juvenile salmon over them with far less water than is now used. The corps has committed to adding removable spillway weirs to all eight of its dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers. One such weir has been operating at Lower Granite Dam, 35 miles west of Clarkston on the Snake River, for the past few years and another is being constructed for Ice Harbor Dam further downstream.

Gorman said his agency isn't saying the dams won't harm some salmon.

"Of course the dams harm fish," he said. "No mater how carefully you arrange the operation of dams they will kill fish. But will they kill fish in such numbers that in bad years they will go extinct? Our conclusion is no they won't."

Eric Barker
Feds Change Rules for Saving Salmon
Lewiston Tribune, September 10, 2004

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