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Feds Conclude Dams Don't Jeopardize Salmon

by Hal Bernton, Seattle Times staff reporter
The Seattle Times, September 1, 2004

The Bush administration has tentatively concluded that the operation of Columbia River and Snake River dams no longer poses a "jeopardy" to threatened and endangered runs of wild salmon.

That finding means federal fishery officials have officially dropped dam-removal as an option in the multibillion-dollar effort to help wild salmon runs recover.

This draft decision announced yesterday would reverse a Clinton administration assessment reached four years ago that the dams did jeopardize salmon and that some dams might ultimately have to be breached to rescue salmon.

"It is indeed a significant legal change," said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for Northwest regional office of NOAA Fisheries. The finding adds new muscle to President Bush's campaign pledge to oppose the removal of any Columbia River dams. And it was hailed yesterday by irrigators, utilities and other power and river users as a welcome affirmation of the dams' ability to coexist with salmon.

"We should acknowledge that the region's investment in salmon recovery is paying off," said Glenn Vanselow, of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association.

Federal officials, at a news conference yesterday, said that the new finding would not result in any weakening in federal salmon-recovery efforts, and said they plan improvements in those efforts in the years ahead.

But the "no jeopardy" announcement was immediately attacked by environmentalists, tribes and other critics, who are expected to challenge the finding in court.

"This one is really more sleight of hand than backed by science," said Charles Hudson, a spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

"This is a huge step backward and needs to be contested," said Michael Garrity, of the Seattle office of the conservation group American Rivers.

Federal officials don't expect to release the draft study that documents the finding until later this month. So the studies and methodology used to reach the no-jeopardy conclusion for 14 runs of endangered and threatened salmon and steelhead is not yet available for public review. The weakest of these runs -- the Snake River sockeye salmon -- now annually yields just a handful of fish each year to a central Idaho drainage.

Federal officials said the Snake River sockeye is a special case, that most salmon runs have improved substantially in recent years and these population rebounds help justify the finding.

"The runs have shown a very positive up-tick, many ... are nearly double or triple their previous numbers," said Bob Lohn, regional fisheries administrator for NOAA Fisheries. "This is very good news."

Salmon are born in freshwater streams, then migrate as juveniles down the rivers out to Pacific feeding grounds. Lohn credited improved ocean conditions for much of the rebound, but he also said that federal efforts in freshwater areas are paying off. He specifically cited improvements in the dam operations, which have made it easier for young fish to move over the dams and reduced mortality rates.

Lohn said salmon survival over the dams is expected to continue to improve in the next decade. Lohn said the Army Corps of Engineer plans -- if congressional funding permits -- to install a new generation of fish passage devices in the major Snake and Columbia River dams.

Scientific studies of their effectiveness is just beginning, but Lohn said that early findings indicate they will provide easier passage for the fish while spilling less water that then can be used to generate power.

The new devices don't come cheap. One installed at Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River in 2001 cost $20 million. Most of the salmon are drawn to that passage, which provides 98 percent survival rates, according to the Army Corps of Engineer. A second installed at Bonneville Dam along the Columbia in 2004 cost $48 million and is now being evaluated.

The new federal study -- known as a biological opinion -- results from a court battle already under way over the effectiveness of salmon-recovery efforts. Environmentalists, tribes and other groups sued the federal government over the content of the 2000 biological opinion fashioned by the Clinton administration.

Last year, U.S. District Court Judge James Redden in Portland found that the 2000 opinion was flawed, relying on some actions "that are not reasonably certain to occur." He then ordered NOAA Fisheries to come up with a new biological opinion.

Yesterday was the court deadline for submitting the draft of new opinion. Lohn said the document is essentially complete and soon will be released for review.

Related Pages:
22 Sockeye Return by Jennifer Sandmann, Seattle Times 9/1/4

Hal Bernton, Seattle Times staff reporter
Feds Conclude Dams Don't Jeopardize Salmon
The Seattle Times, September 1, 2004

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