Dam Breaching Decision
Jim Barnett, The Oregonian, September 20, 1999
The issue may take years of study,
and action in a politically charged election year probably is unlikely
WASHINGTON - In 1995, the federal agency charged with protecting fish took on an ambitious task: Study the migration of endangered Snake River salmon runs and decide whether removing dams would be the best way to prevent extinction.
At the time, the National Marine Fisheries Service said it would do the job in five years. But as a court supervised deadline looms in April 2000, the agency may be further than ever from completing its work.
Agency scientists have said recently that they still know too little about the Northwest's iconic creature. Their new message: Additional study might be needed.
That could take four to seven years and might postpone resolution of the region's most divisive debate for a decade.
Advocates on both sides of the issue said they would prefer to have the certainty of a decision in April. But members of Congress from the Northwest said delay is a likely outcome in part because any decision on removing the four federal dams on the lower Snake would be politically suspect in an election year.
"It's what I've been expecting for about a year," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. Making any decision "is too controversial," he said.
Few members of Congress from the region are willing to speculate publicly what the agency might conclude in April. But some members and their aides already are pondering the political and fiscal consequences of a delay that could last through three presidential terms.
Delay could be costly for people as well as fish. The consequences could include:
It's an election year
Ultimately, the fate of the Snake River dams lies with Congress, which would have to approve removal and the money to pay for it. Northwest Republicans, led by Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., have vowed to block any such request
For the time being, the question rests with the Clinton administration. It poses a nasty political dilemma for Vice President Al Gore, who is campaigning for the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination.
Gore is allied with the national environmental movement, which supports dam removal. But he also needs to maintain traditional Democratic ties to labor, which could lose strongholds in industries that rely on river access and hydropower.
Any conclusive decision is a political liability, so delay is a good outcome for Gore, political rivals said. Delay in the name of science is even better for the vice president's political prospects, they said.
"This administration doesn't want the hot potato of saying, 'We're going to take dams down,' before next year's election," Gorton said.
Some of Gore's usual allies in the environmental movement said they have put the administration on notice that they won't tolerate political opportunism.
"It's a tough decision, and they need to make it soon," said Justin Hayes of American Rivers, a conservation group that has led the fight for dam removal. "If they're going to punt, I'm going to fight like hell."
Top administration officials, including George Frampton, chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, have said they would keep politics out of any decision to continue scientific study
"There's no secret plan to kick the can down the road," Frampton said in May. "We know this debate needs to start as soon as possible."
Nevertheless, Gore has proved willing to play politics with dams and the wealth they create. After prodding from Gore this spring, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson ordered the BPA to negotiate new, discounted power sales to aluminum factories that employ union workers.
The paper chase
For their part, officials at the fisheries service said they are leaving politics at the laboratory door and pursuing the best possible science.
Under the federal Endangered Species Act, the agency's job is to decide whether operation of the dams by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers puts fish in jeopardy of extinction.
The corps also is studying whether breaching the dams - Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, little Goose and Lower Granite - is the best alternative for saving fish from extinction. The corps' report is expected in December, and it will be sent to the fisheries service for a ruling on the jeopardy question.
The fisheries service raised the possibility of delaying its decision in a technical paper issued April 14, agency officials said. But the possibility of delay is never directly stated in the paper and has been difficult for many to decipher.
"You have to live and breathe this stuff to understand it," said Lovelin, who attended an agencysponsored seminar Aug. 31 in Seattle. "It really is oblique. "
Delay is not certain, fisheries service officials said. But their work has been complicated by the listing of additional salmon and steelhead runs this year and incomplete information about the effect of barging juvenile salmon past the dams, they said.
Brian Gorman, a spokesman in the agency's Seattle office, acknowledged that the April 14 paper did not make clear that delay would be an option. But that has been the agency's operating assumption all along, he said.
"It is possible that we may not be able to say yes or no," he said last week.
In Washington, several members of Congress have complained about a lack of candor and clear communication by the fisheries service. That has made their work in Congress more difficult, some said.
"The universal complaint in Oregon from environmentalists and natural resource industries alike is failure to communicate," said Smith, who opposes dam removal.
Time on whose side?
Despite his criticism, Smith said he understands the difficult position in which the fisheries service finds itself. While they are aware of political considerations, agency officials also must answer to a federal court, which approved the study of dam removal in 1995, he said.
"They're looking for window dressing here," Smith said. "If I were them, I would hate to make these things stick with the facts and science they have. They can't. So I think they're being realistic."
Like Smith, proponents of removing the dams are putting the best possible face on a delayed decision, if that is the path the fisheries service chooses.
DeGennaro, leader of the taxpayers group, said a delay would give him more time to lobby Congress on the benefits of dam removal. His pitch: Taking out dams will eliminate costly annual subsidies, as well as the possibility of liability if some Snake River fish runs become extinct.
Conservation groups contend that the fisheries service is ignoring the power of its own findings - that removing dams is the least-risk option for fish survival. They expect a federal judge will be on their side, if not time.
"The science has them nailed down," said Hayes, of American Rivers. "They don't have a lot of wiggle room here."
In the meantime, a group of federal agencies is drafting a "4H" plan with recommendations for improvements in habitat, hatcheries and harvest, as well as hydropower production. Several members of Congress, including DeFazio and Smith, also said they plan to pursue more piecemeal efforts to restore fish.
One of Smith's favorite options is to retrofit dams with fishfriendly turbines. DeFazio wants to take a closer look at habitat issues, such as grazing and logging near streams where endangered fish spawn.
Gorton said he also would support investigating other means of fish recovery while the region waits for the fisheries service to decide about removing dams. But he's hoping the next election will produce a resolution that science has not.
"If we have a different administration, and if, for example, Governor Bush is elected president, this will be off the table in 60 days," Gorton said.
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