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Proposal to Save Salmon by Breaching Dams Disputed

By Jonathan Brinckman, The Oregonian - April 7, 1999

In a congressional hearing, three Northwest senators say the plan, backed by top scientists, is absurd and should be abandoned

HOOD RIVER -- Three U.S. senators -- Oregon Republican Gordon Smith and Idaho Republicans Larry Craig and Mike Crapo -- said Tuesday that they considered breaching lower Snake River dams to aid salmon absurd.

They also urged that a proposal for such action, now under study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, be abandoned.

"I know that societal values with respect to the environment have changed since these dams were built," said Smith, who convened Tuesday's congressional hearing on the subject. "But the way to address these issues is not to turn the clock back, to begin ripping out infrastructure and destroying the benefits these dams provide."

His sentiments were echoed by Craig and Crapo.

A fourth U.S. Senator, however, Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, declined to take sides, leaving open the possibility that he would support breaching. He said he'd "go with the science" in making his decision.

The four senators held the first ever congressional hearing on whether Columbia Basin dams should be removed to aid salmon, propelling what had once been a conservationists' fantasy into the formal arena of public policy.

It was a hearing marked by anger and disbelief from people opposed to such an idea even being considered.

Others, including conservationists and state and federal officials, urged Northwesterners to seriously consider the costly action -- supported increasingly by scientists as the most certain way to prevent the extinction of Snake River salmon.

"This is the time to have this discussion," Eric Bloch, Gov. John Kitzhaber's appointee to the Northwest Power Planning Council, said after the hearing. "The technicians -- the biologists, the economists -- have done their job. Now is the time for the policy-makers to do their job."

Breaching -- removal of the dams' earthen portions to let the river flow past unimpeded -- is being weighed by the corps and the National Marine Fisheries Service as a way to restore salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act. The agencies are to make a recommendation by early 2000. No action will be taken unless first approved by Congress.

Crapo called breaching the dams "politically unfeasible" and said it should not be under consideration. Craig said media coverage of the issue had resulted in "an almost hysterical cry for brash action."

Wyden said he was loath to endorse an action that would cause certain economic harm to irrigators, power users, farmers and others who use the dammed rivers. But he left open the possibility of supporting the breaching proposal, saying he would "follow the science."

The hearing came at a charged time. It was two weeks or less before the fisheries service is scheduled to release a scientific assessment of whether breaching the dams would be the best way to restore endangered salmon and steelhead trout.

It also was two weeks after release of a letter signed by 206 scientists saying the fish faced near certain extinction unless the dams were breached. That letter, sent directly to President Clinton, was signed by many of the region's top scientists, including state, federal and university fisheries biologists.

William Stelle, regional director of the fisheries service, called it crucial for the region to come to consensus on whether it wants to breach the dams for salmon. If the Northwest states and region's tribes do not reach agreement, the federal government may be forced to impose an action.

"In the absence of that leadership, the federal agencies will proceed," Stelle said. "That is our responsibility under the law."

Jim Greer, director of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, offered his agency's most unambiguous support yet of the breaching proposal. He described it as scientifically the best way of restoring salmon.

"Extinction is not an acceptable option," Greer said, describing the results of a department analysis of breaching, called "the natural river" option. "Listed salmon were most likely to survive and recover only under the natural river option."

Craig and Smith said not enough attention had been paid to other factors in salmon decline, such as a downturn in ocean conditions and predation by sea birds and marine mammals.

Don Sampson, interim director of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, which represents four tribes with treaty rights to Columbia River salmon, said his organization supported breaching dams as key to recovering salmon.

"I've seen repeated statements that ocean conditions and overfishing are to blame," Sampson said. "Saying this repeatedly does not make it true."

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., attended and said he was opposed to breaching dams.

Jonathan Brinckman
Proposal to Save Salmon by Breaching Dams Disputed
The Oregonian - April 7, 1999

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