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CSG-West Panel Faces Off on Dam Breaching

by Greg Stahl
Idaho Mountain Express - July 21, 1999

To breach or not to breach . . .

It was a contest in gentlemanly rhetoric--calm, smooth, logical--Friday afternoon as Karl Dreher, director of Idaho's Department of Water Resources, and Jaime Pinkham, Nez Perce tribal executive, faced off on whether or not to breach the four dams on the lower Snake River.

It was the first day of the Council of State Government-West's (CSG-West's) annual meeting at the Sun Valley Inn, attended by more than 400 legislators.

CSG-West's mission in the 13 states and island countries it serves is to stimulate cooperation among western legislators. Dam breaching was one of many controversial issues discussed. Others raised at the four day session included mining, legislative trends, environmental management and operating in an increasingly global economy.

At this year's conference, the organization's Western water policy committee dove right into one of the Northwest's stickiest issues--salmon migration--as members listened to contradicting views.

In the past decade, scientists have extensively researched how to save Idaho's salmon, which have dwindled in number over the past 40 years to near extinction. In a recent letter to President Clinton, over 50 scientists from around the West endorsed partial removal of Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams as the most effective way to save the Salmon River's ailing salmon runs.

A preliminary decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service, based on an environmental impact statement currently being put toghether by the U.S. Army corps of Engineers, on whether or not to breach the dams is scheduled to be issued in October for public comment.

Dreher opened his talk by saying, "the scientific debate (for breaching the dams) is, at best, ambiguous."

Pinkham, the tribe's executive committee treasurer, countered that he realizes the jury is still out on whether breaching has 100 percent certainty of restoring health to fish populations, but also said time is running out and something needs to be done.

"How much time will it take us to step to the plate?" Pinkham asked.

State water official Dreher presented a series of elaborate computerized charts to the group of Western legislators and members of the public who attended the presentation. His illustrations showed river velocities, flow trends and pre-and post-dam salmon populations.

What his charts and numbers illustrated was that the flow of the lower Snake River may not be the issue because it has not changed dramatically since the dams were built. The same volumes of water are washing downstream as before, he said. Rather, it could be the higher temperatures in the four reservoirs that are harming fish populations, he said.

He also pointed out that young salmon could be facing their declines as a result of their perilous ocean lives.

"The ocean is not an insignificant factor," he said. "It's where these fish grow up."

Dreher said fishing in international waters could be depleting the salmon populations. Also, he said, oceanic predators could be killing more fish than in the past, though he did not say why that would be. Those are variables that just haven't been calculated with significant amounts of accuracy yet, he said, and breaching the dams should not be conducted unless scientists are more positive that the dams are the problem.

He concluded by saying there is significant uncertainty that breaching the dams will work.

Pinkham said the United States was founded on many forms of heritage, but some forms of heritage are more politically sacred than others.

He was alluding to the contest between economics and ecology--dams and the energy they produce and transportation vein they provide versus the fish that have been native to this continent for thousands of years.

"The impacts to the communities along the banks of the lower Snake (should the dams be breached) are haunting," Pinkham conceded. "These are some of the gut-wrenching questions we're going to need to answer."

Pinkham said the tribe is involved in a number of efforts, other than breaching advocacy, to save the salmon, however. He said he does not view dam breaching as a "silver bullet."

The tribe is currently working on raising hatchery salmon that are trained to deal with nature more effectively by simulating a natural environment in the hatchery. And Pinkham said he is open to new alternatives as well.

"The science that is coming, the science that is there--we hear that it is inconclusive, but it may always be inconclusive," he said. "Something needs to be done before the extinction of the remaining fish is upon us."

by Greg Stahl
CSG-West Panel Faces Off on Dam Breaching
Idaho Mountain Express page 3 - July 21, 1999

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