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Fish Plan Delays Have River Watchers on Edge

Mike Lee, Tri-City Herald - September 9, 1999

As critical pieces of the region's new millennium fish plan are delayed by federal agencies, river watchers on both sides of the dams debate are worried the public will get snowed this winter by a storm of new data and policies.

For its part, the National Marine Fisheries Service is watching the weather forecast and wouldn't mind a late snow melt next spring to allow a few more days before it has to have its all-important biological opinion done.

"It's going to be tight," said Ric Ilgenfritz, NMFS spokesman. "But it's been done before."

How is it all going to work? "We have been wondering that ourselves for a long time," Ilgenfritz said.

In April - the start of the next fish migration season - NMFS must adopt its Columbia Basin "Bi-Op," the document that will mandate how the river is run next year and beyond.

There's a handful of related documents to come out before then - of which the most immediately critical for the Mid-Columbia is the Army Corps of Engineers' recommendation on whether to tear out the lower Snake River dams. That document recently was delayed for two months until December because the corps was flooded with comments from sister agencies working furiously on their own parts of the salmon plan.

To make matters worse, said the Sierra Club's Jim Baker, the critical fish decisions are taking place with federal elections looming next year, presenting the possibility that politics will play havoc with science. "The potential for a major disaster for the salmon and the public is very much present," he said.

It's not clear yet exactly how the region will get to learn about decisions regarding its water and fish in coming months. "I am just stunned there is no well-defined plan as to how this is going to occur," said Scott Bosse, with the environmental group Idaho Rivers United in Boise.

Besides, in bureaucratic terms, eight months isn't much time for draft documents, multiple public hearings and revisions. And the process could be decidedly more confusing if the federal agencies don't coordinate the public meetings and the release of information.

Ilgenfritz said agencies are trying to "economize on process" by having one main set of public hearings about all the interrelated documents in January and February. Hearings will be in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and probably Alaska, because that's where many Columbia River fish spend their ocean years.

One set of hearings seems to match the regional wish list. "I think it makes sense ... to put the whole issue of Columbia Basin salmon recovery in perspective," Bosse said. "It is about more than dams."

Baker agreed. "The best way to raise public distrust would be to hold a series of meetings on a series of documents," he said.

Another prominent concern is that public agencies will compress the timeline so tightly that public comments will be a mere formality.

"Too many people in the Northwest care about this issue to just get lip service at the public hearings," Bosse said. "There are probably going to be tens of thousands of people who want to weigh in. To have public hearings a month before the final decision documents come out would just be a travesty of justice."

Bruce Lovelin, director of the Columbia River Alliance, an association of river users, isn't optimistic about how the government will handle public comments regardless of the schedule. "If history repeats itself in these kinds of efforts, (public comments) will be pretty much perfunctory," he said.

Ilgenfritz, however, said the agency can get the work done in the two months it's leaving to review comments. "We have sufficient time," he said.

Mike Lee
Fish Plan Delays Have River Watchers on Edge
Tri-City Herald September 9, 1999

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