Government Declares Dams No Threat
by Eric Barker
Technology improves salmon, steelhead runs, NOAA reports
Dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers no longer threaten the existence of salmon and steelhead, according to the federal government, and dam breaching is no longer a last-chance salmon recovery possibility.
In a stunning turnaround, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Tuesday it is revising its 2000 biological opinion on the dams to say they do not pose a danger to the survival of threatened salmon and steelhead runs.
"This opinion does not anticipate dam removal," said Bob Lohn, regional administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries division. "Our work shows you can achieve recovery without removing the dams."
The old opinion called for everything but dam removal in salmon recovery strategy, but it also said dam removal should be considered if all else fails.
Lohn pinned the change of opinion on improved salmon and steelhead returns of the last four years and the promise that technological fixes to the dams hold for improving conditions for fish. Lohn said within the next 10 years all eight dams on the lower Snake and Columbia rivers will be fitted with new fish passage structures.
Many of the technological improvements will be modeled after the removable spillway weir that has been used at Lower Granite Dam, 35 miles west of Lewiston, for the past few years. The device and others like it allow juvenile fish to pass dams more easily and with dramatically less water.
"We have had several indications that this technology is succeeding and can be extended," said Lohn.
But he admitted the device has produced only a small increase in the survival of salmon passing Lower Granite Dam and its real promise may be its efficient use of water needed to both pass fish and produce power.
If less water is needed to pass fish, Lohn said water could be spilled for greater periods of time. For example, some dams spill water for 12 hours and run it through turbines for 12 hours during peak fish passage times. Lohn said weirs at each dam could allow for more efficient spill 24 hours per day.
Some fish advocates said fixing the dams to pass fish with less water would help the Bonneville Power Administration produce and sell more power, but would not lead to salmon recovery. Because of that Michael Garrity of American Rivers at Seattle said the upgrades should not be funded with fish recovery dollars.
"It should be acknowledged for what it is and that is a power-producing tool and not a salmon saving tool," he said.
Lohn and Gen. William Grisoli, Commander of the Northwestern Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Portland, Ore., could not say how much the dam fixes would cost. The prototype weir at Lower Granite cost $11 million.
The government will continue to rely on other fish saving strategies such as seasonal flow augmentation, predator control and habitat improvement, according to Lohn. He could not say if trapping and transporting juvenile fish in trucks and barges would continue to be used or if water will be spilled at the dams during the summer months.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the BPA tried to reduce the amount of water spilled at the dams this summer but were stopped by a court ruling.
Lohn said Dworshak Reservoir will continue to contribute water to salmon recovery, but its use will be based on negotiations between the federal government, Indian tribes and states.
Environmental organizations, Indian tribes and fishing groups were quick to pounce on the reversal of opinion as evidence the Bush administration is backing away from its commitment to recover salmon.
"There is no way this is defensible," said Bill Sedivy of Idaho Rivers United at Boise. "If it is implemented as we think it will turn out we will have to see them in court again."
Fish advocates sued the government over its last biological opinion and salmon recovery plan. Judge James Redden of Portland ruled in their favor and said the government did not adequately show how it would mitigate for fish killed at the dams. He gave NOAA Fisheries one year to come up with a new plan.
That plan was not released today. Instead Lohn released only some of its details. He said the final plan is being proofread and edited and should be released shortly.
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