Feds Shift Focus to Fish Recovery Planby Les Blumenthal, Herald Washington, D.C., bureau
Tri-City Herald, July 20, 2000
WASHINGTON -- Instead of breaching the Snake River dams, the federal government plans to focus for the next five years on a $900 million program that could ignite new water wars, challenge private property rights and increase the risk of downstream flooding.
Those details about the Clinton administration's proposals for saving endangered Columbia and Snake river salmon emerged Wednesday despite a delay in a Senate hearing that had been scheduled.
Although delaying a decision for at least five years, the administration still wants to conduct preliminary engineering and economic impact studies of breaching the four lower Snake River dams -- studies that will require funding from an openly hostile Congress.
The plan for saving the fish also will have to be reviewed by a federal judge in Portland who in the past has said the administration's efforts fell well short of what's needed to rebuild dwindling salmon runs.
The administration is expected to release its plan next week, but details began to emerge Wednesday in testimony prepared for the Senate hearing, in a briefing from the head of the regional office of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle and from an administration official familiar with the draft.
"Every measure remains on the table, and the question of whether the most dramatic actions will indeed need to be taken will be determined by the condition of the fish," George Frampton, chairman of the White House Council for Environmental Quality, said n the prepared testimony.
Although Frampton said breaching is "one step among many that holds promise" for restoring four Snake River runs, it would do nothing to help the 12 other Columbia Basin salmon stocks protected under the Endangered Species Act.
"Breaching would clearly help those (Snake River) fish," he said. "It may or may not prove necessary to achieve their recovery. But the science is clear that breaching is not the solution itself for Snake River stocks."
Environmentalists have insisted the best way to restore the runs would be to breach the Eastern Washington dams -- Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite. But the dams produce enough electricity to supply a city the size of Seattle, and their reservoirs provide a highway from Lewiston for barges carrying grain from as far away as the Dakotas.
The administration plan will call for a series of steps, some draconian, that if not enacted by federal, state, tribal and local governments within five years could automatically trigger a decision to take out the dams.
Even if all the steps were taken but the salmon stocks were still in decline after eight years, Congress would be asked to approve breaching.
In rejecting breaching as too risky and too costly, the administration plans to concentrate on improving salmon habitat, reducing fishing, modifying and closing some hatcheries and making changes in the vast hydroelectric system whose dams and reservoirs are blamed for harming salmon runs.
The administration official, who asked not to be identified, said the plan will include:
The plan also will call for an end to trucking of some Snake River salmon stocks downstream, a move that would require the release of more water from Idaho reservoirs and around-the-clock spilling of water at many of the river system's hydroelectric projects.
"We have our work cut out for us," said Will Stelle, head of the fisheries service's Seattle office. "There is a broad array of aggressive actions that must be taken."
Stelle, along with Frampton, was scheduled to testify before the water and power subcommittee of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. But the hearing was abruptly canceled after a dispute within the committee on another matter.
Though a final price tag hasn't been calculated, the administration plan could cost up to $900 million over 10 years. Breaching the four dams is estimated to cost well more than $1 billion.
Stelle said there is no "single silver bullet," including dam breaching, that could guarantee recovery of the runs. He said his agency wants to take every step possible before turning to breaching.
"We recognize a limit on the resources available and our authority," he said.
Any decision to breach dams would have to be approved by Congress.
Once a decision to breach the dams was made, Stelle said, it would take only two or three years to actually do it. Environmentalists, however, have said it could take considerably longer, and any delay in making a decision could put salmon at further risk of extinction.
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