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Plan to Save Northwest Salmon Falls Short,
Report Says

by Robert McClure
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 30, 2003

Effort to save fish, dams not going as expected, but 'adequate'

The plan to save the wild salmon of the Snake and Columbia rivers without disabling dams is not working as well as planned, the Bush administration has admitted.

In a report issued Christmas Eve, the National Marine Fisheries Service acknowledged that "delays represent a significant concern" but nevertheless judged federal efforts to carry out the plan "adequate."

Federal agencies are behind on "key actions" to save Columbia and Snake river salmon stocks from an extinction spiral, the agency said. That's worrisome, although it could be remedied, the report said.

The report by the fisheries service looks at the performance of three other federal agencies: the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, which operate large dams, and the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets the electricity they produce.

It marks the first of three planned checkups on a 10-year salmon-recovery plan developed under the Clinton administration. Adoption of the plan headed off a painful decision to punch holes in four Snake River dams to let the river flow more naturally -- a decision President Bush endorsed on a visit to the Tri-Cities four months ago.

The results laid out in the new report drew fire from environmentalists who already had won a court ruling that the recovery plan is deficient.

"You have an inadequate (plan) that is not being adequately implemented, and that spells trouble," said Rob Masonis of American Rivers, an environmental advocacy group. "It relies on voluntary, unspecified actions that are going to happen sometime down the road."

Masonis said, though, that the fisheries service deserves credit for giving a candid assessment of the plan's progress.

Bob Lohn, the agency's regional administrator, noted the recovery plan called for his agency to assess the progress as being in the "green zone" if everything were going well, in the "red zone" if it was on "a path to disaster," and in the "yellow zone" otherwise. The agency chose the yellow zone.

"We're making good progress. It's not as fast as expected," Lohn said. "There's still room for improvement, but given a more realistic schedule, we believe the agencies can complete the progress they committed to make."

The stocks, protected under the Endangered Species Act, are at a fraction of their historic abundance.

They have rebounded significantly in recent years with the help of cyclical ocean conditions, giving the agencies some breathing room, Lohn said.

"Even while noticing the deficits, I'm excited about the scale of achievement" contemplated under the plan, he said.

The dams kill young salmon migrating to the ocean in a gantlet of spinning metal blades, poisonous gases and water-pressure changes that can blow their eyes from their sockets.

To avoid that, dam managers now collect about four-fifths of the salmon and put them into fish tanks on barges, which move them past the dams.

However, scientists using elaborate tracking techniques can tell that many of the transported salmon later die after spending time in the crowded tanks on the barges, probably because of stress or disease.

"There's nothing out there to suggest that you can recover wild Snake River salmon stocks to harvestable, self-sustaining levels without dam removal," Masonis said.

"We have always said, hey, if you guys can come up with another plan that is going to yield the same benefits that dam removal is and recover the stocks, more power to you. But this plan isn't it."

Breaching the dams is controversial, though. It would raise the cost of moving wheat, paper and other goods to market from the inland Pacific Northwest, because barges could no longer navigate 140 miles of river.

It would also incur costs to replace irrigation equipment for 13 large farms near the Tri-Cities. And it would raise electric bills from $2 to $5 per month across the region, federal officials have calculated, to make up for the lost hydropower.

To avoid that, the Clinton administration laid out a 10-year program that would seek to boost salmon stocks by improving the conditions of rivers where salmon spawn and live as juveniles, restricting the number of salmon that can be caught and adjusting how fish hatcheries are run so they don't overwhelm wild stocks and damage their gene pool.

"Breaching the four lower Snake River dams would provide more certainty of long-term (salmon) survival and recovery than would other measures," according to the salmon-recovery plan. Nevertheless, it said, with extraordinary efforts on other fronts, such as buying up waterfront farmland on the lower Columbia and reworking it to make it suitable to protect young salmon, the stocks could be saved without breaching the dams.

One of the key delays highlighted in the report is the preparation of more than 60 recovery plans in individual watersheds. The idea is to get local interests, including businesses and farmers, to support and take actions to benefit salmon recovery.

That started under the Clinton administration. But the Bush administration has been particularly careful to stress that these would be local plans, not handed down by federal bureaucrats, and therefore more likely to succeed in the long run.

In June, the fisheries service plans to issue a new recovery plan for the Snake and Columbia stocks to satisfy a ruling by U.S. District Judge James Redden of Portland, who rejected the current plan as having "serious flaws ... that need to be addressed and remedied in the immediate future."

Bill Murlin, a BPA spokesman, said, "We ... and the other federal agencies who are involved in doing this are aware of many of the concerns that have been identified in this report, and we are definitely working to resolve them."

He said reaching consensus among many federal, state and local interests is taking a lot of time.

"The other thing to remember is that this is the 2003 check-in," Murlin said. "It's the third year of a 10-year program, and a lot of organizations and agencies are involved in trying to make these programs work."

Robert McClure
Plan to Save Northwest Salmon Falls Short, Report Says
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 30, 2003

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