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Dams, Fish Can Coexist, Bush says

by Joe Rojas-Burke
The Oregonian, August 23, 2003

ICE HARBOR DAM, Wash. -- With the hydroelectric dam clad in an American flag as a backdrop, President George Bush on Friday said he's made good on his promise to restore salmon while sparing dams from breaching.

We can have good, clean hydroelectric power and salmon restoration going on at the same time," the president said, eliciting applause from Republican Party supporters, businessmen and Eastern Washington farmers who rely on the dams for a navigable river on which to barge their crops to Portland and beyond.

In case anybody missed it, the president sharpened his point: "We got an energy problem in America. We don't need to be breaching any dams that are producing electricity, and we won't."

Cheers drowned him out.

This is dams country, along the Snake River, where conservationists who seek to aid fish by breaching dams are often viewed as an urban elite. Bush took advantage of salmon's surging numbers this year to counter conservationists' attacks on his environmental record.

He cited salmon's rebound as the success story of local people with federal support, working to improve "a vital part of the natural environment."

"The good news about what's happening here is, it looks like you've been able to bypass all the endless litigation, come up with solutions to the problems, and people can say, you know, job well done," Bush said.

Critics, however, said it's far too soon to say whether efforts to help salmon have been sufficient to pull endangered fish stocks out of a decline that has spanned many decades.

And the federal courts are watching.

The top U.S. agency in charge of helping Northwest salmon, the National Marine Fisheries Service, in 2000 recommended against breaching four lower Snake River dams, among them Ice Harbor, in exchange for extensive restoration of river habitat to compensate for the lethal effects of dams on migrating fish.

But the strategy was rejected in May by a federal judge who ruled the actions were too uncertain to prevent extinctions of federally protected salmon runs. U.S. District Judge James Redden gave the Bush administration one year to fix the legal shortcomings.

Throughout these developments, the theme was consistent: If adequate measures to offset the negative effect of dams on fish were not achieved, breaching would be reconsidered -- as soon as 2004.

The president's comments Friday reinforced his stance that nothing will get in the way of hydroelectric dam operations.

Bob Lohn, regional administrator with the National Marine Fisheries Service, earlier this week was in support of the current recovery effort, also citing the upsurge in returning salmon.

"The averages have turned upward, and in many instances, the runs are showing better than replacement," he said. "I don't interpret that as a sign that everything is fixed and all is well. I do take it as a sign that, along with favorable ocean conditions, many of the approaches we are taking are having an effect."

Some conservationists called it misleading for the president to take credit for large runs of salmon this year, nearly all of which hatched and migrated to the sea before Bush took office. Most salmon spend three to four years in the ocean before returning to spawn.

"A few years of good returns due to good ocean conditions does not a recovery make," said Joe Whitworth, executive director of Oregon Trout, a Portland-based conservation group.

In the Columbia and Snake rivers, decades of overfishing, and damage to streams from logging, mining, cattle grazing and dam building have pushed a dozen salmon stocks toward extinction. Even with recent gains, wild salmon runs remain a fraction of what they were a century ago, when 10 million or more chinook, sockeye and other salmon crowded into the Columbia each year. Current runs are in the tens of thousands, and some runs consist mostly of hatchery-reared fish.

The president paid heed to the extent of decline, noting the abundance of salmon witnessed by the Lewis and Clark expedition. "Today, there are a lot fewer salmon in the waters," he said. "The good news is the salmon runs are up. We just need to keep the momentum."

Part of that momentum is tangible and was celebrated by Bush in the work of the Chelan and Douglas public utilities districts, which recently signed a 50-year agreement with the U.S. Commerce Department specifying salmon habitat improvements in Columbia River tributaries. For its part, the Chelan district already has spent more than $100 million on a salmon-bypass system around Rocky Reach Dam on the Columbia, and district official Roger Purdom, thrilled at the recognition, said "the goal is to make our dam virtually invisible to fish."

Still, forces of nature lead the current rebound, most scientists agree, more than human actions. Ocean currents that enrich coastal waters with organic matter shift on a roughly 20-year cycle. Such a shift occurred in 1998, boosting survival of young salmon entering the sea.

"The trick," said fisheries scientist Stuart Ellis, "is being able to determine how much of our recent abundance of returns has been due to natural causes, and how much has been due to changes in dam operations, forest practices, water withdrawals and so on."

If practices haven't improved enough, said Ellis, who works for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, "as soon as the ocean turns around, you are going to be right back where you were."

Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition of conservation groups, asserts that federal agencies have completed less than a third of the actions required in the federal salmon plan and that dam operators last year failed to supply adequate river flows for salmon.

"The Bush administration needs to come forward with a credible recovery plan," said Rob Masonis of American Rivers.

But Lohn, of the fisheries service, said funding for Northwest salmon conservation has increased each year since Bush took office. Bush's 2004 budget calls for spending about $700 million on Pacific salmon.

Later Friday, Bush met in Seattle with economic leaders before heading to a fund-raiser in the suburb of Hunts Point. The $2,000-per-person event was at the home of wireless telecom executive Craig McCaw. Bush left Seattle on Air Force One following the event.

Joe Rojas-Burke
Dams, Fish Can Coexist, Bush says
The Oregonian, August 23, 2003

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