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Corps Says it Prefers Four Dams be Kept

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, December 18, 1999

The first-ever statement coincides with a report on breaching
and three other options for the Snake

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Friday said it wants to keep four lower Snake River dams in place and find other ways to help salmon.

The agency's top regional official made the assertion despite the corps' simultaneous release of a long-awaited $20 million study in which the agency reviewed dam removal and three other fish-saving options but avoided stating a preference.

Brig. Gen. Carl Strock said the corps would only recommend breaching -- removing the dams' earthen portions so the river again flows swiftly -- if no other measures were found to save threatened and endangered Snake River salmon and steelhead trout.

He said his agency first would explore modifying the dams and other approaches in an effort to avoid breaching. "We are hopeful that we'll be able to do that," Strock said at a packed news conference in the Lloyd Center DoubleTree.

Strock's statement is the first-ever public indication that the corps prefers to preserve the dams it built, between 1961 and 1975, at a total cost of $1 billion. The dams make the river navigable to barges that serve agriculture and industry as far inland as Lewiston, Idaho.

Both Strock's words and the corps' report were sharply at odds with another announcement by a separate federal agency: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which issued a report Friday in support of breaching dams.

Fish and Wildlife Service officials said breaching would benefit not just salmon but a host of native bird, plant and mammal species. Unlike the corps, which must consider the social and economic impacts of breaching in its assessments, the Fish and Wildlife Service considers only the welfare of wildlife.

"The bottom-line biological conclusion is really a no-brainer," said Ann Badgely, regional director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. "For native fish and wildlife, a free-flowing river is better than a dammed river." Officials of the service, however, were careful to state that they were not actually proposing Snake River dam breaching.

The Fish and Wildlife Service report put the agency in direct conflict not only with the corps but also with the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency in charge of saving salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act.

William Stelle, regional director of the fisheries service, said a "real ambiguity" exists about whether breaching the dams is needed to save fish or whether the action would be enough to save fish. And Strock had said, "Scientific evidence is not conclusive."

The fisheries service also released a report Friday outlining a range of actions for saving salmon. That report, called "Conservation of Columbia Basin Fish," said many Columbia Basin salmon are at dire risk of extinction.

Twelve populations of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin have federal protection, including four that travel up the Snake River to Eastern Oregon and Idaho.

Conservationists and tribes that advocate breaching dams said the Fish and Wildlife Service had made it impossible for other federal agencies to deny the scientific merit of breaching.

"The science is finally phrased in a way that we understand it," said Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sport Fishing Industry Association, which represents lure and tackle manufacturers and other beneficiaries of sport fishing.

"Dam breaching is what we support," said Antone Minthorn, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. "We cannot support any of the alternatives that do not restore fish."

The documents released Friday by the corps and fisheries service greatly expand information available on the effects of breaching Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams:

Conservationists disputed the corps' calculation of the economic benefits of breaching, saying the agency had undercounted benefits, including revenue that would result from improved commercial fisheries. Still, said Jeff Curtis of Trout Unlimited, even the corps' numbers show that the dams should be breached.

"Even if it's $247 million, compared to a $300 billion regional economy, the cost of breaching dams is insignificant," Curtis said. "If we aren't willing to make that kind of sacrifice measured against the regional economy, what kind of decency do we have as a region?"

Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., released a statement Friday praising the fisheries service for its recent shift to look beyond dam breaching. "The report reflects a turn away from dam removal and recognizes that significant reductions in harvest could provide enough population growth recovery of Snake River species."

The fisheries service is due to recommend by May whether the four dams should be breached and, with the corps, will hold public hearings in February and March. Action will not be taken unless first approved by Congress.

Related Links:
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Walla Walla 509-527-7015, or 509-527-7020.

Jonathan Brinckman
Corps Says it Prefers Four Dams be Kept
The Oregonian, December 18, 1999

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