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Fisheries Delays Decision on Removing Snake Dams

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, January 1, 2000

Federal inaction on moves to save salmon
upsets conservationists but is a relief for industries

Four years ago, when the National Marine Fisheries Service raised the then-inconceivable idea of removing federal dams to aid salmon, the agency said it would make a recommendation by 1999.

It didn't.

Now it says it will have an opinion on the contentious subject this spring.

But even that might not come true.

What is certain to occur soon this year is this:

Whatever the outcome, the fisheries service concedes its official recommendation on dam-breaching might be postponed again if scientific uncertainty remains.

And if anything has been certain so far, it is uncertainty.

"It's really not clear whether we'll have the answer on D-Day," said Donna Darm, deputy regional director of the fisheries service. "If we don't, we'll have to figure out if we should take more time, and what are the risks of allowing more time."

Delay upsets conservationists The possibility of further delay angers conservationists, who consider breaching -- removing the dams' earthen portions to allow the river to flow unimpeded past the concrete structures -- the only way of saving Snake River salmon.

Industrial users of the river system, however, are pleased.

"I think as we learn more, the pendulum is going to continue to swing toward more reasonable strategies for saving salmon," said John Saven, executive director of Northwest Irrigation Utilities, a trade association of electric utilities that rely on hydropower generated at federal dams.

Breaching the four dams on the Snake River -- Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite in Eastern Washington -- would be the most dramatic step ever taken to restore declining runs of Northwest salmon. The proposal comes as plans to remove smaller, private dams are announced, including the dams on the Sandy River near Portland and on the White Salmon River in Washington state .

Politics plays significant part Pat Ford, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon, a Seattle-based conservation group, thinks the federal government is seeking to avoid recommending breaching the Snake River dams because it considers the idea politically unpopular.

But he predicts an outpouring of public support for breaching at February and March hearings throughout the Northwest. That support, he said, will convince the Clinton administration that breaching makes political sense.

While the fisheries service, the federal agency in charge of protecting fish and wildlife in the vast Columbia River Basin, considers dam removal, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is completing a separate $20 million study of breaching.

That study will recommend one of four options: maintaining the status quo, increased barging of juvenile fish past dams, modifying dams to help fish migrating downstream or breaching the dams.

Issue not a 'slam dunk' Corps officials in December declined to issue a preliminary recommendation. They said the issue was not a "slam dunk," though the corps' regional head, Brig. Gen. Carl A. Strock, expressed a wish that adequate fish-saving measures be found without breaching dams.

Even if one or both agencies recommend breaching, the question would be far from settled.

If the fisheries service ultimately decides that dams must be breached to save fish, President Clinton has the option of convening what is popularly known as the "God Squad." Called the Endangered Species Committee, the panel of top administration officials has authority under the Endangered Species Act to rule that a species should not be saved because the economic price would be too high. In effect, this panel decides the fate of select species.

If the corps ultimately decides to support breaching, no action could be taken unless first approved by Congress. And with most Northwest members of Congress publicly against the idea, it would take a formidable coalition of legislators to overcome opposition.

Inaction proves frustrating Continued inaction has left longtime observers frustrated. Jim Martin, top fisheries official at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife until he retired late last year, said Snake River salmon will be saved only if the federal government recommends breaching.

"Are we going to make a decision, or are we just going to quietly let the fish go extinct while we study them?" Martin said.

Eric Bloch, one of Oregon's two appointees to the Northwest Power Planning Council, said the federal government failed the region by not making its recommendation on dams last year. Bloch said drastic action is required to save Snake River salmon: either breaching the dams or some combination of costly, aggressive measures that could include further restrictions on fishing, strict efforts to protect water quality and limits on production of hatchery fish for anglers.

"I think people should be disappointed," Bloch said. "There was a promise made in '95 that a decision would be made in 1999. And that's not been done. I think the public has a right to be concerned."

Now, said Bloch, the federal government should step forward.

"It's not getting any easier to make this decision," he said. "Waiting for one more scientific fact or one more political ally to materialize before making the decision is, I think, a dream that's not going to happen."

Jonathan Brinckman
Fisheries Delays Decision on Removing Snake Dams
The Oregonian, January 1, 2000

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