the film
Commentaries and editorials

Confusion Slows Dams Decision

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, April 26, 2000

Federal agencies give conflicting signals on when an opinion will be reached
on whether to breach Snake River dams to save fish

Confusion in the already chaotic world of salmon recovery reached new levels this month with conflicting signals from the Clinton administration on when it would issue its recommendation on the removal of four Snake River dams.

The heat has not been about the heart of the issue -- whether to breach dams to aid declining runs of salmon and steelhead -- but rather when the federal government should have an opinion about it.

Timing, as in so many things related to salmon, has become paramount in this election year.

Federal officials until recently were committed to issuing their recommendation this spring.

But then a firm resolve turned spongy:

Will Stelle, regional director of the fisheries service, insisted Tuesday his agency would not duck the dam breaching question this year. He said his office would issue a legal opinion on dam breaching, as required under the sweeping Endangered Species Act, in draft form in May and in final form in July.

"If we wait until consensus is forthcoming, we may be waiting for Godot," Stelle said. "The status of the (fish) stocks really does require that we move forward and we move forward in a scientifically credible manner, regardless of whether there is a consensus and regardless of who may be in support or not."

The dams question has exerted tremendous pressure on all stakeholders in the Columbia River Basin -- industrial and agricultural users of the rivers, fish advocates, tribes and suppliers of electricity generated at the Eastern Washington dams. The dams under consideration are Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite.

Some have speculated that the Clinton administration may have floated "trial balloons" to gauge public reaction to the possibility of delaying a recommendation, Stelle said Tuesday, speaking by telephone from Washington, D.C. But he said his agency was not doing that.

"We're all systems go," he said, "We're proceeding to do what we said we would do all along."

Stelle Tuesday said he could not explain Babbitt's comments, because he had not read them.

He also said that although Gorman is correct about scientific uncertainty surrounding dam-breaching, the fisheries service will have settled those questions by late May.

Industry representatives and conservationists, bitterly opposed over whether dams should be breached, both expect delay. And both groups are angry. Both charge that the administration is delaying a recommendation because it fears political damage whichever way it goes.

"We're getting mixed messages," said Bruce Lovelin, executive director of the Columbia River Alliance, which represents barging companies, ports and other industrial users of the river. "I don't believe there will be a recommendation."

Breaching the dams would end the production of about 4 percent of the region's electricity, make it impossible for barges carrying grain to travel from as far inland as Lewiston, Idaho, and end irrigation of a dozen large farms near Pasco, Wash.

Lovelin and other industrial users of the river do not think breaching is necessary to save Snake River salmon. They would rather see the corps expand a program that uses trucks and barges to carry young salmon past dams.

Even some federal officials are puzzled.

Doug Arndt, chief of fisheries management for the corps' Northwest division, said Tuesday he did not know what to make of the varying statements.

"I really don't know where they're going," Arndt said. "There's a god awful amount of confusion out there in the public because they keep hearing different stories."

Jonathan Brinckman
Confusion Slows Dams Decision
The Oregonian, April 26, 2000

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation