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Clinton Asked to Expedite Dam Plans

by Solveig Torvik
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - December 19, 2000

With federal salmon-recovery opinion due Thursday,
scientists stress the importance of Snake River stocks

More than 200 scientists critical of the federal government's efforts to restore Northwest salmon pleaded yesterday with President Clinton to order the National Marine Fisheries Service to prepare plans now to breach four Snake River dams in case other recovery measures fail.

NMFS officials want to wait several years before preparing such plans, but the scientists said some Snake River stocks will vanish in less than two decades unless effective recovery steps are taken.

Yesterday's request was the first time the scientists asked Clinton to order that dam-breaching plans be made.

Although 12 salmon stocks now are listed as either threatened or endangered in the Columbia/Snake river system, the scientists said they continue to emphasize the importance of the Snake River salmon "because they account for a disproportionately large share of the restoration potential for wild salmon in the Columbia Basin."

Seventy percent of the restoration potential for spring/summer chinook and summer steelhead lies within the Snake Basin, they said.

NMFS is to release the final version of its biological opinion for recovery of Columbia/Snake river salmon Thursday.

But the draft biological opinion released in July showed that NMFS "has not identified any specific, feasible recovery measures that are likely to recover Snake River stocks short of dam breaching," the scientists said.

They faulted NMFS for focusing on tributary or estuary habitat instead of main-stem river habitat. NMFS proposes habitat restoration in the Columbia estuary but "does not call for any major improvements to the main-stem migration corridor, where unacceptably high levels of hydro-system-related mortality would be allowed to continue largely unabated," their letter said.

During last week's energy shortage, the four dams produced a total of 80,000 megawatt-hours at an average value of $1,000 per megawatt-hour. BPA would have had to pay $80 million to buy it on the market at the time.

At a moment of peak production, the four lower Snake River dams could provide more than 3,000 megawatts of electricity on emergency, instantaneous basis. But over a typical year, they produce 1,231 average megawatts, roughly the same amount of electricity needed by Seattle during an average year.

Nonetheless, "Breaching is not off the table," NMFS spokesman Brian Gorman said. "But it clearly does not make sense politically, economically or biologically to make it the first choice."

He said breaching "would not benefit the rest of the Columbia Basin, and it would expend enormous political and financial capital" while the other measures NMFS proposes can "clearly have a salutatory effect on fish."

Even if there were consensus about breaching and the money to do it, Gorman added, it would be eight to 10 to 12 years before any benefit to fish would become apparent. NMFS officials want to focus on near-term efforts that can work, he said.

He said Thursday's final biological opinion would include definitive checkpoints in three, five and eight years "to see if performance standards are being met."

"We may find that we have to breach. The choice about breaching doesn't have to be made now. I would think it would be made as early as five years from now," Gorman added.

NMFS officials say recovery could be enhanced by improving upriver tributary habitat. But the scientists said "this conclusion is inconsistent with the fact that abundant high-quality spawning and rearing habitat is already available to these fish." It's not lack of habitat that's the primary reason the fish die, they said; it's passing the dams that kills them.

In an earlier letter to Clinton in March 1999, the group -- which includes federal, state, tribal, university and independent scientists with expertise in salmon survival -- stopped short of calling for breaching and urged return to more normal river conditions.

But this time, the scientists, mostly from Oregon, Washington and Idaho, expressed "strong disagreement" with NMFS' proposed recovery plan, the draft biological opinion issued in July. It proposes to put off a dam breaching decision for eight to 10 years and, the scientists say, wrongly focuses on improving habitat for juvenile salmon in tributaries where there is little room for improvement.

"We feel obliged to inform you that the recovery measures set forth in the biological opinion are unlikely to recover many of the Columbia Basin salmon stocks listed under the federal Endangered Species Act," they said.

The scientists reminded Clinton that they warned in March 1999 that NMFS officials had erred in taking "a path of technological solutions instead of a return to more normative (natural) river conditions." And they repeated what they said then: "The weight of the scientific evidence clearly shows that wild Snake River salmon and steelhead cannot be recovered under existing river conditions."

"It would be one of the biggest environmental tragedies in the history of the Northwest if Snake River salmon were allowed to disappear when we know how to save them," said Jim Martin, former fisheries chief of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"For 25 years, we've spent billions of dollars largely ignoring the needs of the fish in our quest to save the dams," Martin said. "We're sending grain down the river in barges and sending fish back to the ocean in trucks. Is it any wonder they're disappearing?"

The scientists faulted NMFS' approach as failing to define scientifically sound standards against which potential recovery efforts can be measured and for failing to define what's necessary to achieve recovery.

The NMFS also "ignores the weight of scientific evidence pointing to the dams as the primary cause for the sharp decline of Snake River stocks over the past decades, and NMFS' plan "calls for no measures that would significantly improve main-stem habitat in the Snake River."

They quoted a June 2000 Bonneville Power Administration report that said "selective reservoir drawdown and/or dam breaching," plus more natural river flows, "is the only viable strategy for restoring main-stem habitat" for fall Chinook.

More than 140 river miles of quality spawning habitat is inundated by the Snake dams, they said. And although drastic reductions in harvesting might prevent fall chinook from going extinct, they warned that "harvest reductions alone will not recover self-sustaining, harvestable runs because of the lack of adequate main-stem spawning and rearing habitat."

Solveig Torvik
Clinton Asked to Expedite Dam Plans
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 19, 2000

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