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NW Delegation: Ruling Doesn't Mean Dam Breaching on Table

by CBB Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin - May 16, 2003

Northwest members of Congress of both parties remain opposed to breaching dams despite a federal judge's ruling against the 2000 salmon recovery plan that was touted as an alternative to dam removal.

But some members believe the judge's order for federal agencies to rework the plan may be an opportunity to improve it.

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, who chairs the Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over endangered species issues, criticized the National Marine Fisheries Service and other federal officials in the region at the time they were developing the plan for not consulting more with state and tribal agencies.

Now, Crapo thinks the court ruling presents an opportunity to modify and improve NMFS' 2000 biological opinion, chief of staff John Hoehne said today (May 16).

If the Bush administration or other parties do not appeal Redden's ruling or if an appeal is not successful, then the plan will have to be redone. But Crapo and other members of Congress said that does not mean considering breaching or removal of dams.

"Maybe we can do better - 'we' meaning everybody in the region," Hoehne said. "There is a risk to the region in having to do a new bi-op, but we prefer to view it positively and think of it as an opportunity to make it even better, and have higher probability of recovering salmon."

Also, he noted that there is new leadership at NOAA-Fisheries under the Bush administration and that cooperation among federal officials and state, tribal and local interests has improved since the original plan was developed during President Clinton's final years in office.

In 2000, the Clinton administration and Northwest Democrats touted the plan as an alternative to dam breaching, which Bush campaigned against during the presidential election.

"We are not advocating breaching the lower Snake dams," Hoehne said. "But our objective all along has been to do what we can to push sensible modifications to the hydro system."

Crapo and his staff are consulting with a variety of interests in the region on questions facing the Columbia Basin salmon recovery plan in the wake of U.S. District Judge James Redden's ruling last week. Crapo's subcommittee was scheduled to hold two hearings on the plan - one in Washington, D.C., and one in Boise - but put them off because of Redden's ruling. Now they will be rescheduled soon and will like focus on the impacts of Redden's ruling and the future of the plan, Hoehne said.

Crapo wants to preserve the hydro system for commercial, power and other purposes while facilitating the outmigration and survivability of salmon and steelhead smolts through "smart modifications" to dams, he said. "We don't think it has to be an either/or situation, and we are going to continue to push solutions that accomplish both."

One example that merits further exploration is a raised or removable spillway weir, which enables fish to be spilled over dams without consuming a lot water and reducing power generation. The concept is being worked on by the Army Corps of Engineers and others.

Other Northwest members who commented on the ruling stressed their opposition to breaching dams, and some blasted Redden's decision in the light of recent improvements in the size of adult salmon spawning returns.

Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., urged National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Regional Administrator Bob Lohn this week to consider Oregon's weak economy when revising the biological opinion.

"I want to stress that the Northwest economy is closely intertwined with the policies affecting electricity production and salmon runs," Smith wrote in a letter to Lohn. "The utmost care should be taken to ensure that Oregonians, who are already suffering the nation's highest unemployment rate, are not unnecessarily harmed by any revisions to the biological opinion."

"Judge Redden's decision was both irrational and absurd in light of high salmon returns over the past few years," he added. Smith advised Lohn that when choosing between two actions equally protective of salmon, the agency should adopt choose the least cost alternative.

Smith said the court ruling does not call for the breaching of the dams. He warned advocates of that option he will fight them. "Hopefully, no one is foolhardy enough to make a serious attempt at removing the dams, but if they are, I will do everything in my power to ensure that they are stopped dead in their tracks," Smith said.

Smith said if necessary he would introduce legislation to prohibit removing dams in the Columbia River System.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who is considered pro-environment on many issues, also ruled out breaching because of the economic and environmental impacts. "I don't see the case for it," he said.

The agriculture and trade sectors in particular have been hard-hit, and the barge shipping system on the Columbia-Snake rivers provides transportation for grain and other goods.

Also, the removal of the dams would release sediment and cause erosion that would be detrimental to salmon, Wyden said.

Reps. George Nethercutt and Doc Hastings, both R-Wash., who represent eastern Washington where the Snake dams are located, criticized environmental groups for taking the government to court and using the judge's decision to promote breaching.

"The judge did not rule that the biological opinion was completely wrong; he ruled it wasn't exactly right," Hastings said. "Changes may need to be made, but the dams are going nowhere."

Nethercutt expressed disappointment at the decision. "I believe the record numbers of salmon returning should be evidence that the federal government is taking appropriate steps to increase fish recovery," he said.

"The statements by the environmental groups about the judge's ruling show that their true intention are the removal of the dams, no matter what data is presented to them," he said. "Nowhere in the decisions does it say that breaching the Snake River dams is necessary or would enhance salmon runs."

CBB Staff
NW Delegation: Ruling Doesn't Mean Dam Breaching on Table
Columbia Basin Bulletin, May 16, 2003

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