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Dueling Agencies on the Snake

by Editors
The Oregonian, May 1, 2000

Talk about muddying the waters:
Four federal agencies can't agree on salmon recovery, so confusion reigns

It is becoming increasingly difficult for Northwesterners to figure out what to do next regarding Snake River salmon recovery. Why? Because four federal agencies can't agree among themselves on the science, the law, the facts or what the imperiled salmon need the most.

The latest development finds the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency telling the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that its dam study is inadequte, that Snake River dams harm water quality, threaten salmon and might best be breached to comply with the federal Clean Water Act.

In interpreting the critique, an EPA official confused the issue when he said, "We think the dams have an impact, and we think they need to comply with the Clean Water Act and state water quality standards. (But) we didn't say breaching is the only alternative."

Earlier, the Corps, in a draft copy of its $20 million, four-year study of ways to improve salmon survival on the Snake, was set to recommend that modifying the dams to improve fish passage was a better solution than breaching them. The White House, however, ordered that recommendation off the table, not because of water quality concerns, but because a decision to breach the dams in a presidential election year is not good politics.

Enter the National Marine Fisheries Service. It is prepared to say later this month -- in its long-awaited biological opinion about what to do on the Snake -- that the dams ought to be left in place for five to 10 years while the region overhauls hatcheries, reduces harvests and restores damaged salmon habitat. If it turns out that these other efforts don't work, then the dam-breaching card, according to the fisheries service, would be played.

Guess who disagrees with that? The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for one. When NMFS suggested late last year that the dams should be left in place while the region concentrated on habitat restoration issues and other things, Fish and Wildlife opposed this strategy, saying that breaching the four dams would be the best way to restore ecological health in the Snake River.

Meanwhile, the White House and Congress seem to want this sticky issue to go away entirely.

These are turbulent times, indeed, for the fish, for biologists and for anyone else who is trying to understand and interpret the various spins from the federal agencies in charge.

The spin that makes the most sense is one that says don't do anything as irreversible as breaching until we try other strategies first, carefully monitor their performance and see if the salmon can be saved without taking a sledge hammer to the Northwest economy.

Dueling Agencies on the Snake
The Oregonian, May 1, 2000

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