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Federal Fish-dam Opinion Revised

by Erik Robinson, Columbian staff writer
The Columbian, September 1, 2004

Bush administration officials on Tuesday declared that the operation of Columbia River basin dams does not jeopardize imperiled salmon.

The decision, announced in a teleconference with Northwest reporters, changes the standard by which hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year on salmon recovery in the Columbia basin.

The matter will come before a federal judge in Portland later this month.

Top federal salmon managers in the Northwest essentially declared federal dams to be a permanent part of the landscape, a major departure from past policy. They said a new court-ordered biological opinion, to be released in writing by Sept. 10, will end consideration of breaching four dams on the lower Snake River.

Federal officials acknowledge that dams harm salmon, said Bob Lohn, regional administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"The action we're looking at is operating the hydro system, not building dams," Lohn said. "The dams were in place before the Endangered Species Act, so our analysis starts with that fact."

Environmental and tribal groups disagree.

"You're ignoring one of the biggest harvesters of these fish," said Nicole Cordan, policy and legal director for the Save Our Wild Salmon coalition in Portland. "This is just a wholesale change in interpretation of the Endangered Species Act that I don't think will fly."

In asserting for the first time that the operation of dams doesn't directly jeopardize salmon protected by the Endangered Species Act, the fisheries service will no longer require federal dam managers to offset indirect harm caused by the dams' existence.

Dams directly harm salmon by killing them as they pass through turbines or over spillways. They indirectly harm fish by creating large reservoirs where predators lurk, water temperatures rise and slow currents stymie migration.

Formal biological opinions in the past accounted for those indirect effects, and compelled expensive offsets.

"Prior opinions were largely unable to sort out how much (harm) was due to the existence of the dams and how much was due to the operation of the dams and therefore there was no distinction made between the two," Lohn said. "Under the Endangered Species Act, the law is very clear that the dams are in the baseline. That's not a discretionary question." (see ESA text at

Federal officials insisted they are committed to salmon recovery, and other environmental-protection laws compel them to follow through with continued hatchery improvements, stream-restoration projects and harvest cutbacks. In addition, federal dam managers will have to continue to offset direct harm as water and fish are run through turbines and over spillways.

Federal officials cited strong salmon returns in recent years as evidence that restoration activities are working. Officials also acknowledged that fish have benefited from favorable ocean conditions.

U.S. District Judge James Redden last year ruled the current biological opinion to be illegal.

In that opinion, issued in December 2000, the fisheries service claimed the operation of 14 federal dams jeopardized eight salmon and steelhead stocks teetering on the brink of extinction. The opinion laid out 199 actions that, if followed, should keep the stocks from going extinct. But some of those actions included commitments to future habitat improvements by state, tribal or private groups.

Redden ruled that "the lack of certainty" over those actions falls short of the standard established by the Endangered Species Act.

Tuesday, Lohn, joined by top executives of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dams, and the Bonneville Power Administration, which sells the power generated, offered a preview of the biological opinion that will be offered to Redden by Sept. 10.

NMFS missed the Tuesday deadline to get the full document to the court.

The announcement sets a new course for salmon recovery in the Columbia basin, jettisoning a movement toward restoring the Columbia and Snake rivers to a more natural condition, and embracing the eight major dams as a fact of life for the region.

"The idea that the whole hydrosystem in the Columbia River is all of a sudden now determined to not jeopardize fish is quite a change in direction for the federal government," said Jim Myron, natural resources adviser to Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski. His predecessor, Gov. John Kitzhaber, called for the removal of the four dams on the lower Snake River.

Judge Redden "has established some pretty high bars before," Myron added. "Whether this gets over Redden's bar is questionable."

John Kober of the World Wildlife Fund, lead plaintiff in the lawsuit that resulted in this new biological opinion, said it appeared to be created to fulfill President Bush's campaign promise to leave the four lower Snake River dams in place.

The Pacific Northwest Waterway Users Association, a coalition of barge operators, farmers, utilities and others, was pleased with the new approach, particularly the recognition that the dams are part of the landscape, executive director Glenn Vanselow said.

Lohn said the new biological opinion will result in the addition of removable spillway weirs, which should be installed on all eight major dams within the next 10 years. One has been in experimental operation on Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River in Eastern Washington, with promising results.

The $9 million contraption, built by Thompson Metal Fab in Vancouver, enables the dam to pass fish with only an eighth of the water dumped over spillways, which present problems of their own for fish. Rather than requiring fish to dive deep to pass through spillways or turbines, the device gathers fish and eases them over the dam.

"The data we are seeing suggest there can be a slight improvement in direct survival," said Lohn. "We could get noticeable improvement."

Brig. Gen. William Grisoli, commander of the Northwest division of the Corps of Engineers, said he had no cost estimate, but the weirs would have to be custom-designed for each dam.

Kober argued that the removable spillway weirs are expensive as much as $40 million per dam and offer little demonstration of increased salmon survival.

Lohn noted that since 2000, salmon returns have improved dramatically. He acknowledged that a climatic change that improved food availability for salmon in the ocean was responsible for much of the increase, but the number of juvenile fish surviving their migration downstream over the dams was also improving.


Previously: The National Marine Fisheries Service declared in December 2000 that the operation of federal dams jeopardizes the existence of eight runs of Columbia River basin salmon or steelhead.

What's new: Bush administration officials on Tuesday announced a new biological opinion will declare the dams do not jeopardize fish.

What's next: The government will submit a draft of its new biological opinion to U.S. District Judge James Redden by Sept. 10, officials said.

Related Pages:
22 Sockeye Return by Jennifer Sandmann, Seattle Times 9/1/4

Erik Robinson, Columbian staff writer
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Federal Fish-dam Opinion Revised
The Columbian, September 1, 2004

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