Dam-breaching Report Delayedby Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, June 9, 2000
Federal agencies say conflicts on large issues
have stalled until June 30 a recommendation on four Snake River dams
Divisions among federal agencies on how to save salmon have further delayed -- until June 30, at least -- a recommendation on whether Snake River dams should be breached.
Regional agency heads are meeting daily to hammer out details of a document that will say when and if the four dams should be breached.
Agency officials will not divulge details of the discussion, except to say that fundamental conflicts remain unresolved.
"There is credible scientific rationale that breaching is necessary; there is credible scientific rationale that breaching may not be necessary. Neither is clear enough to rule out the other," said Ric Ilgenfritz, Columbia Basin coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The fisheries service is required by the Endangered Species Act to issue a legal finding on whether federal dams are harming listed salmon and whether the Snake River dams must be breached, or partly dismantled, so the river is allowed to flow freely.
The dams, in Eastern Washington, would not be removed without Congress' approval. But findings by the fisheries service are considered critical to the outcome, and enormous attention has focused on the agency's recommendation. It has been delayed several times already.
Conservationists, fishing groups, tribes and many scientists say the dams must be breached if salmon are to be saved. Others, including industrial users of electricity generated at the dams and residents of Eastern Oregon, strongly oppose breaching and say the economic and social costs would be far too high.
The dams, built and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, generate about 4 percent of the electricity used in the Northwest and make the river navigable by barges that carry grain from as far east as Lewiston, Idaho.
The findings of the fisheries service will have national political ramifications, with Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush firmly against breaching and Vice President Al Gore uncommitted. Gore will give a speech on environmental matters today in Richland, Wash.
A White House official said Thursday that the administration would wait for federal officials in the Northwest to reach consensus. "Ultimately this must be a regional solution," said Elliott Diringer, a spokesman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
The fisheries service, which is seeking to reach consensus on dam breaching with nine other federal agencies, originally said it would make a recommendation by the end of 1999. That deadline slipped, most recently to May 22. Now officials are hoping to make a draft recommendation by June 30.
Will Stelle, regional director of the fisheries service, previously disclosed that his agency will not recommend that dams be immediately breached. He has said it would recommend that a final decision be put off for at least five years and that the fisheries service set measurable goals for salmon recovery.
If those goals are not met, Stelle said, the government would reconsider breaching.
But large issues remain unresolved, officials with the fisheries service and other federal agencies said Thursday. Specifically:
• What the goals should be. The federal agencies have not determined how high to set goals for fish recovery. High goals, which may not be reachable, would make dam breaching more likely.
• How long to evaluate fish returns before making a final decision. The agencies have not decided whether the legal document, which would set rules for operating federal dams as well as ruling on how a breaching decision should be made, would last for five, seven or 10 years.
Officials involved in the negotiations say they expect the issues to be resolved.
"There are some difficult issues that we are wrestling with," said Bill Shake, assistant regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "I don't see people going into corners and saying, 'This is my position, and I'm going to stick with it.'"
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