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Snake River Dam Removal is Deferred

by Ellen Nakashima and Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post, July 20, 2000

The Clinton administration announced yesterday it has decided to delay removal of four dams on the Snake River in the Pacific Northwest, angering activists who want to save endangered salmon. But the administration also left open the possibility of breaching the dams later, dismaying farmers and businesses that depend on the dams for power.

As an alternative, the administration outlined a series of steps that officials said would protect the salmon more quickly and perhaps avoid the need to breach the dams. The plan calls for restoring salmon spawning grounds, making changes to dams to improve water flows, continuing harvest restrictions and immediately starting engineering studies on dam breaching.

The dam issue is a politically charged one, putting the administration in a difficult position of trying to placate activists who want to protect the salmon while not alienating farmers and business groups that oppose tearing down the dams that provide irrigation and electricity.

Vice President Gore yesterday initially refused to say whether he supports the administration's plan, saying that he wanted to "review" it and bring "all the stakeholders together" in a "salmon summit." Later in the afternoon, he issued a statement endorsing the administration's plan, saying it "provides a solid foundation for restoring the salmon while strengthening the economy of the Pacific Northwest."

"If sufficient progress toward recovery is not being made, we may then have no choice but to pursue options such as dam breaching," he said. "But we must first exhaust all reasonable alternatives."

The issue is a sensitive one for Gore, who is striving to build momentum for his presidential campaign and cannot afford to lose groups considered among his core supporters, including environmentalists. Already, though, his cautious position on the dams has hurt him among some activists, who say the administration's decision amounts to a "death sentence" for the salmon.

"The vice president has clearly avoided the issue at all costs and proposed things like salmon summits that aren't bringing us closer to a resolution," said Maggie Lockwood, a spokeswoman for Trout Unlimited. "I think it will hurt him. He had an opportunity to show some leadership and really fell short."

Environmental groups have launched a national campaign to remove the dams, endorsing a plan that would cost an estimated $1 billion. The dams were built during the 1960s and 1970s along a 140-mile stretch of the Snake upstream of its confluence with the Columbia. The dams transformed the once free-flowing Snake into a series of placid reservoir pools, contributing to the decline of the salmon.

George Frampton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, noted that breaching the dams would require congressional approval, a process that is likely to take at least 10 years given the staunch opposition from the Northwest congressional delegation.

"Even if you did decide to breach the dams today," Frampton said, "it's not an instantaneous solution. Nor is it a complete solution. The other actions we're proposing could provide just as much benefit and provide it much sooner."

Washington state Republicans and the presidential campaign of Texas Gov. George W. Bush accused the White House of trying to give Gore political cover by seeming to make a decision, but leaving open the possibility of reversing that decision. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer noted that Bush is beating Gore in polls in Washington and Oregon, two states that have tended to vote for Democrats in recent presidential elections.

"Al Gore should take a stand," Bush said in a statement. "I say we can use technology to save the salmon, without leaving the door open to destroying those dams."

"The only reason for the delay on the decision is to help Al Gore's presidential bid this fall," said Cynthia Bergman, a spokeswoman for Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.). "The people of the Northwest don't want the dams removed. The dams are not coming down on [Gorton's] watch."

But larger environmental organizations said Gore's plan for a "salmon summit" was prudent. "Gore could actually have this summit very early in his term and could move quite rapidly to breach the dams," said Carl Pope of the Sierra Club, which is fighting to save the salmon. "As long as you hold it promptly, it's a perfectly reasonable way to go."

Staff writer in Austin contributed to this report.
Ellen Nakashima and Thomas B. Edsall
Snake River Dam Removal is Deferred
Washington Post, July 20, 2000

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