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Delay is Newest Option on Breaching Dams

by Jonathan Brinckman and Jim Barnett - The Oregonian, September 3, 1999

Waiting for more data before deciding on four Snake River dams
is a possibility despite a promise for a decision this year

The National Marine Fisheries Service, which had promised to recommend by this spring whether to breach for salmon four federal dams on the lower Snake River, is now considering a third option: delay.

Federal officials said Thursday that they are weighing the possibility of waiting to recommend until more scientific information was available.

"We want the option of saying we don't have enough scientific confidence to make a recommendation," said Brian Gorman, a fisheries service spokesman.

The possibility of delay comes in the midst of a fierce battle about the future of Snake River dams. Many biologists and conservationists support breaching, calling it the best way to save salmon. It is opposed by industrial users of the river -- including bargers, irrigators and power users who say it would hurt their livelihoods.

Some advocates of breaching on Thursday called the possibility of delay a political decision designed to protect the Clinton administration and the year 2000 Democratic political campaign.

Some industrial users of the river, however, welcomed the possibility of delay. They said more study would prove that improving habitat and other measures would be more effective at restoring salmon than breaching.

A delay in a decision to breach could guarantee the extinction of Snake River salmon and steelhead trout, said Don Sampson, executive director of the Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents four tribes with treaty rights to Columbia River salmon. The tribal commission has called for breaching the four dams: Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite.

"This is Al Gore saying, 'Punt the ball because I'm in a presidential race right now, and I can't afford to do the right thing,' " Sampson said. "We think delaying a decision is probably illegal under the Endangered Species Act and surely illegal with regard to federal treaty rights."

The possibility of delaying a recommendation is based on political -- not biological -- science, said Chris Zimmer, a spokesman for Save Our Wild Salmon in Seattle.

Fisheries service officials say much has changed since they wrote the 1995 legal document, called a biological opinion, that said a recommendation on breaching dams would be made in 1999. In addition to breaching, federal scientists are studying leaving the dams in place or fixing them to aid fish passage.

For one thing, only three stocks of Columbia Basin salmon were listed by the Endangered Species Act, all of them Snake River fish that migrate past the four dams. Now, 12 stocks of Columbia River salmon and steelhead, including stocks in the upper and lower Columbia that do not migrate past the dams, are listed.

Removing the Snake River dams, fisheries service officials say, may not be the best thing to do for all listed fish in the Columbia Basin.

Also, said Donna Darm, assistant regional administrator of the fisheries service and principal author of the 1995 biological opinion, the latest scientific data raise the possibility that breaching the Snake River dams to restore Snake River salmon may not be necessary.

"I don't think you can lightly say it's the best thing for the fish, and, therefore, we should do it," she said. "I think that would be irresponsible."

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., agreed Thursday that new data pointed to the need for further study.

"I think a lot of what's happened in the last three or four months points to the possibility of a deferred breaching alternative," DeFazio said.

DeFazio said he thought that deferring the decision would not be a "political manipulation" on the part of the Clinton administration. At the same time, DeFazio said, aides to Gore would probably breathe easier for having avoided a difficult choice in the midst of a presidential campaign.

"I don't think that's how they envision kicking off the presidential election year," DeFazio said. "No matter what decision they make, there will be incredible controversy on either side."

Some proponents of dam removal say a delay would allow them additional time to make their case to members of Congress, especially those from outside the Northwest who are unfamiliar with the issue.

"More time allows us to build more public support around the nation," said Ralph DeGennaro, executive director of Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington, D.C.

DeGennaro hopes to convince Congress that removing dams is best for taxpayers as well as fish. Unless salmon runs recover, he said, the federal government could be liable to Native American tribes for billions in damages through long-standing treaties.

Despite their best efforts so far, DeGennaro and some of the nation's most powerful environmental groups are struggling to force the dam removal into the national spotlight.

For now, at least, dam removal is a political impossibility. Northwest senators, led by Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., oppose dam removal, and they control key positions on the powerful Appropriations Committee.

Jonathan Brinckman
Delay is Newest Option on Breaching Dams
The Oregonian , September 3, 1999

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