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Dam Decision May Give Each Side Something

by John Hughes, Associated Press
Seattle Times, July 16, 2000

WASHINGTON - With a long-delayed decision on the fate of the Snake River dams due later this month, federal officials are still expected to announce that the dams will stand for some years to come.

But some environmentalists, previously dejected at the prospect of no dam removal, are finding reason for some optimism.

They are hopeful that federal officials will say they will quickly pursue preliminary engineering and economic-impact studies needed to bring down the dams.

That way, if federal officials decide five years from now that dam removal is needed, the dams could come down as early as 2007.

"There is clearly enough information on the table now to warrant dam removal," said Justin Hayes, associate director of public policy for American Rivers. "But there are other things that can be captured in their decision that come short of that, but do continue to move the ball forward."

Business and labor groups see reason for optimism, too. They are pleased the administration will not focus on dam removal to aid fish populations but will lay out a broad array of solutions, such as improving estuaries and stream habitat.

Doug Riggs, coordinator for a Portland labor group opposed to dam removal, said that eight or nine months ago, many people believed the administration would recommend immediate removal of the four 100-foot-high dams in southeast Washington - the Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor.

"The change in thinking . . . is a step in the right direction," said Riggs of the Labor Coalition for Responsible River Use.

Federal agencies have set July 27 as the target date for releasing two draft plans for the recovery of 13 endangered and threatened salmon stocks across the Columbia Basin.

The two documents, the biological opinion and so-called All-H paper - which examines the role of hydropower, habitat, hatcheries and salmon harvests in recovery of the fish - will together be the most comprehensive plan federal officials say they have ever proposed for salmon recovery in the Basin.

"We're launching a strategy that we believe will move us toward the goal of recovery and establishing the paramaters under which (Snake Dam) breaching would be considered - if sufficient progress is not being made," said Elliot Diringer, spokesman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

"Clearly, this proposal does not take the question of breaching off the table, but it moves first on those strategies that we believe have the highest probability of getting the job done."

The biological opinion was due in late 1999 but was delayed until May, then June and now July 27. The delays show the difficulty of bringing together nine federal agencies to write a plan covering 14 hydroelectric projects and 31 irrigation projects, said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle.

"This is extraordinarily complex," he said.

The draft documents could become final later this year, but they will not settle the larger debate about the dams, which will likely continue in the courts and Congress for years to come.

Administration officials, with a presidential election as the backdrop, have leaked details of the plan in interviews and news releases over the previous weeks and months.

Late last month, for instance, administration officials told state and tribal officials in the Northwest about parts of the plan to rebuild salmon habitat on federal lands and restore the Lower Columbia River estuary.

Under a five-year habitat initiative, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service would work to stabilize banks, place logs and rocks in streams, and plant trees and shrubs near streams to cool the water and prevent erosion. The actions would be taken in 12 key watersheds of Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

But there are still some unknown parts of the plan that will determine whether environmentalists and business groups applaud the document or criticize it.

Here are some key factors:

The time frame. The administration plans to give the dams some lease on life, but after that time, if certain recovery standards are not achieved, the government would move toward recommending the dams be breached. Only Congress can take out the dams.

But how much time will the dams have? If the administration says it will give the dams three to five years to meet recovery standards, business groups will say that is too little time. If the administration says the dams will stand at least a decade, environmentalists will call that a sure path to extinction.

The standards. How will federal fisheries officials determine whether their plan is working? If the standards are too tough, dam supporters will call them unattainable. If the standards are too soft, environmentalists will say the plan is an effort to protect the dams.

The studies. If the administration aggressively conducts engineering studies on taking down the dams, and does other studies on how to address the economic impacts of losing the dams, environmentalists are likely to applaud.

But business groups do not believe it is fair to seriously study breaching before Congress authorizes bringing down the dams.

John Hughes, Associated Press
Dam Decision May Give Each Side Something
Seattle Times, July 16, 2000

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