New Factors Considered in Delay of Dam Breaching Decisionby The Associated Press
Tri-City Herald, September 4, 1999
PORTLAND - Federal officials are considering delaying a decision to breach four dams on the lower Snake River until more scientific information is available on how it will affect salmon.
The National Marine Fisheries Service had promised to recommend by this spring whether to breach the dams but are weighing the possibility of waiting to recommend in the midst of a fierce battle about the future of Snake River dams.
"We want the option of saying we don't have enough scientific confidence to make a recommendation," said Brian Gorman, a fisheries service spokesman.
Many biologists and conservationists support breaching, calling it the best way to save salmon. It is opposed by industrial users of the river - including bargers, irrigators and power users - who say it would hurt their livelihoods.
Some advocates of breaching on Thursday called the possibility of delay a political decision designed to protect the Clinton administration and the year 2000 Democratic political campaign.
Some industrial users of the river, however, welcomed the possibility of delay. They said more study would prove that improving habitat and other measures would be more effective at restoring salmon than breaching.
A delay in a decision to breach could guarantee the extinction of Snake River salmon and steelhead trout, said Don Sampson, executive director of the Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents four tribes with treaty rights to Columbia River salmon. The tribal commission has called for breaching the four dams: Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite.
"This is Al Gore saying, 'Punt the ball because I'm in a presidential race right now, and I can't afford to do the right thing,"' Sampson said.
"We think delaying a decision is probably illegal under the Endangered Species Act and surely illegal with regard to federal treaty rights."
Fisheries service officials say much has changed since they wrote the 1995 legal document, called a biological opinion, that said a recommendation on breaching dams would be made in 1999.
In addition to breaching, federal scientists that are studying leaving the dams in place or fixing them to aid fish passage.
Donna Darm, assistant regional administrator of the fisheries service and principal author of the 1995 biological opinion, said the latest scientific data raise the possibility that breaching the Snake River dams to restore Snake River salmon may not be necessary.
"I don't think you can lightly say it's the best thing for the fish, and, therefore, we should do it," she said. "I think that would be irresponsible." Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., agreed Thursday that new data pointed to the need for further study and said he thought that deferring the decision would not be a "political manipulation" on the part of the Clinton administration.
At the same time, DeFazio said, aides to Gore would probably breath easier for having avoided a difficult choice in the midst of a presidential campaign.
"I don't think that's how they envision kicking off the presidential election year," DeFazio said. "No matter what decision they make, there will be incredible controversy on either side."
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