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Scientists Make a Final Plea for Dam Breaching

by Mike Lee, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, December 19, 2000

Disheartened by Al Gore's loss of the presidency, Northwest environmentalists are pushing the lame-duck Clinton administration hard for a commitment to breach the four lower Snake River dams.

On Monday, they released a letter to Clinton signed by more than 200 scientists that says without evidence of other effective measures, "the lower Snake River dams must be breached soon if Snake River stocks are to be recovered."

Clinton has one obvious chance left to set dam breaching in motion -- the final river operations plan that is to be released Thursday by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Known as the biological opinion, or bi-op, it sets river management plans for several years.

On Monday afternoon, however, NMFS spokesman Brian Gorman said immediate breaching is not part of the plan. But he said the agency will set performance triggers that would send the dam breaching option to Congress if fish survival falls below certain levels.

"For the most part," he said, "there won't be anything different" than the draft plan, which was released this summer.

And Gorman downplayed the role of presidential politics in setting NMFS' direction. "Most of what governs a bi-op is science and law," he said. "You really don't have much room to go beyond those two things."

Scott Bosse of Idaho Rivers United remained hopeful for high-level intervention spurred by the scientists' letter.

"The points that the letter addresses are the points that I think NMFS and the White House are still hammering out," he said. "So I don't think it's too late."

Clearly, Clinton and Gore are much more likely to be sympathetic to dam breaching requests than President-elect Bush, whose Eastern Washington campaign was based on a firm commitment not to dismantle the Snake dams.

"This whole thing would have been a heck of a lot easier if Al Gore was president," Bosse said. "But Al Gore isn't president, and the game goes on."

Given that, environmentalists are planning to try to win dam breaching support in Congress for the next four years while waiting out Bush's term. And next year, they will have a significant advantage in the Senate, where they no longer will have to battle Republican Sen. Slade Gorton, Washington's vanquished statesman and unabashed dam defender.

For environmentalists, it was a victory sweet enough to offset Gore's loss. For river users, it was a bitter defeat.

"We did lose one of the people who was the most fierce defenders of the multiple-use river system," said John Givens, executive director of the Port of Kennewick. "That was a big loss."

Givens doesn't expect the election to settle the dams' fate for long.

"We need to continue to provide what efforts we can to make sure the water quality stays sufficient for the migrating fish," he said. "Now we need to show this wasn't just about dam breaching. It's about maintaining a healthy travel corridor for fish that are endangered or threatened."

Environmentalists will continue to advance the idea that dam breaching is the best way to make the river safe again for fish.

"It would be one of the biggest environmental tragedies in the history of the Northwest if Snake River salmon were allowed to disappear when we knew how to save them," said Jim Martin, one of the 200 scientists who signed Monday's letter and a former fisheries chief for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The letter follows a similar effort in 1999 by many of the same scientists in which they argued against a continuing reliance on technological fixes of the river system when fish need a "normative river."

"We regret to report that the warning apparently has not been heeded," says the most recent letter.

Also, the Western division of the American Fisheries Society recently poked holes in NMFS' no-breach plan, saying the agency used overly optimistic growth rates and probability of fish run recovery with current river conditions.

But there are a few factors playing into the hands of those who want to keep the dams in place for power and navigation.

For one, this winter's power shortage scare has revived interest in the Columbia-Snake hydropower system, which generates about three-quarters of the Northwest's electricity.

Bosse admits the power situation makes dam breaching a harder sell. "We are not going to be able to move forward with dam removal until the region puts together a plan to address our energy needs," he said.

Also, some salmon runs in 2000 were extraordinary, and predictions for the spring chinook returns in 2001 are even higher -- more than 360,000 fish at Bonneville Dam.

The vast majority of those will be hatchery fish, a sign to some that the natural river system is still in disrepair but to others that human efforts are finally working.

Mike Lee
Scientists Make a Final Plea for Dam Breaching
Tri-City Herald, December 19, 2000

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