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EPA Says that Snake River Dams Must Come Down

by Robert McClure
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 29, 2000

Army Corps of Engineers' plan is blasted by agency

It looks like the only way to save the Snake River salmon and to improve water quality is to punch holes in four dams and let the river flow free, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said this week.

The EPA's comments came a day after federal fisheries managers announced they would probably leave the Snake River's fish-killing dams in place for another five years.

In a blistering critique of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' draft plan for the Snake River dams, the EPA attacked the Corps' scientific conclusions as "false and misleading."

The EPA's determination adds weight to the long-running argument in favor of breaching the dams and virtually ensures any decision will be thrown to the highest levels of the Clinton administration.

At issue is a Corps draft statement saying the dams might actually help salmon protected under the Endangered Species Act by cooling the river, a conclusion that runs counter to the thinking of many scientists.

In part because of that finding, the Corps had been ready last fall to recommend keeping the dams.

But high-ranking Clinton administration officials intervened and no recommendation was issued.

Then this week the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Corps' partner in figuring out what to do about the dams and the salmon, said that next month it probably will recommend keeping the dams.

If other measures to help the fish aren't working in five or 10 years, the dams will have to be breached, the Fisheries Service said it expects to declare.

But on Thursday the EPA fired off a salvo that skewered the Corps' conclusions about the dams' effects on the fish -- and part of the underlying rationale for leaving the dams in place.

"The (Corps' draft plan) indicates that dams actually result in cooler water temperatures in the (dammed) system than in the free-flowing river," the EPA's critique says.

"It implies that water temperature conditions have improved since the dams have been put in place. The discussion supporting this hypothesis is flawed and misleading."

The Corps' draft statement on the dams covered four alternatives: doing nothing; keeping the dams and tweaking operations; keeping the dams and changing operations a lot; and breaching the dams.

The EPA rated the first three alternatives "environmentally unsatisfactory." Only disabling the dams would meet water quality standards, the agency said.

Doug Arndt, chief of the Corps' fish management division for the Northwest, said the EPA's harsh rating for the non-breaching alternatives came as a surprise.

"Temperature is a tough, tough issue in the Snake River, . . . a tricky issue," Arndt said. "Breaching dams is not going to resolve our temperature problem."

Allowing timber cuts, planting crops and grazing cattle on streambanks of Snake tributaries helps heat up the water, he said.

The EPA questions information used by the Corps as the basis for concluding that even an undammed river would frequently exceed the state's 68-degree standard for temperature.

Sloppy information-gathering earlier in the century, and flawed analysis in the last year or so, may have led to that conclusion, the EPA charges.

The Army Corps' Arndt said that while the EPA is focused on meeting water quality standards, including temperature, his agency was merely told to check out alternatives for improving salmon survival.

Arndt said salmon can live in water above 68 degrees.

"I'd have to look at the information that would tell me that 68 is lethal," Arndt said. "I've never seen that data."

Mary Lou Soscia of the EPA said some scientists worry that even 68 degrees, the temperature allowed by Washington water quality standards, is too warm for salmon to thrive.

In warmer water, salmon migrating to or from the ocean expend more energy because of increased metabolism. And small salmon are more likely to get picked off by predators.

Higher temperatures also affect egg viability, resistance to disease and the growth rates of young salmon.

"Temperature becomes a sort of invisible killer," Soscia said.

"It doesn't kill fish directly, but it leads to more fish dying. . . . It's like any of us -- if we're not taking care of ourselves, we're more susceptible."

Both agencies agree about this: With the river dammed, the water does not get as hot as it once did at the peak of the summer heat.

But the water doesn't cool nearly as fast when fall approaches and the fish begin to migrate. The fish won't migrate until the water cools, and they are weakened as they wait, said Soscia.

"The species evolved around certain water temperatures," she said. "They have certain temperature requirements at certain times in their life cycle."

The EPA's critique hammered the Corps of Engineers on points other than temperature.

Gasses that harm salmon smolt are introduced into the oxygen-poor water as it spills over the dams, EPA scientists pointed out.

The scientists said juvenile and adult salmon are "significantly stressed by conversion of their riverine system" as well as having to pass through the dams.

Smolt are also stressed, and some are killed, by the practice of gathering up some young salmon to be trucked or barged around the dams.

If the EPA and the Corps cannot reach agreement -- as Arndt said appears likely -- the dispute will have to be settled at the White House level, where the Council on Environmental Quality would arbitrate.

Bruce Lovelin, director of the Columbia River Alliance, a lobbying group representing dam-dependent businesses, called the EPA's position discouraging for his group.

"It's bad. I'm not going to sugar-coat this thing, because it's not good from our side," Lovelin said.

"Here you have the nation's chief environmental agency suggesting that these dams are in violation of the Clean Water Act, and the only way to ameliorate them is to get rid of them or do something else pretty drastic."

Robert McClure
EPA Says that Snake River Dams Must Come Down
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 29, 2000

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