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Asking the Fish to Wait

by J. Robb Brady
Post Register, December 29, 1999

In a long-awaited report on how to recover Pacific Northwest salmon, the National Marine Fisheries Service ducked.

The National Marine Fisheries Service and other federal agencies involved in a five-year, $20 million study of salmon failed to endorse the centerpiece of that recovery - removing the four lower Snake River dams.

It's still studying alternatives like barging fish around the dams, modifying the dams and flushing more Idaho water down the Snake.

Only breaching has been endorsed by research and hundreds of scientists as the one option offering fish the best chance of survival.

Increased barging doesn't work. And because a reservoir lacks the river current so vital to healthy fish runs, no amount of dam renovations can compensate for those deficits.

Short of breaching, the only sure way to accelerate the river current is using more water. That means taking Idaho water to preserve fish threatened by dams located in eastern Washington state. It's estimated the so-called fish flush would need at least 1 million-acre feet - in addition to the 427,000 acre feet already being released in the recovery effort by the Bureau of Reclamation.

In a critically dry year, drawing that much water out of Idaho could take as many as 643,000 acres of farmland out of production.

Think it can't happen? Idaho already got an early warning. Last month, nine western environmental organizations gave notice they intend to sue the government because the river flows are inadequate to support fish migration.

If the federal agencies resort to using Idaho water, scores of water attorneys undoubtedly will cite state water rights law. The state, not the federal government, controls water, they will say.

Privately, however, attorneys in and out of Idaho are becoming apprehensive that the Endangered Species Act will prevail over state water law.

Former Sen. James McClure, who is working with the industry-led opponents to dam removal - Idaho United for Fish and Water - says breaching is a political impossibility. The coalition includes groups like the Idaho Farm Bureau, the Lewiston Chamber of Commerce and the Idaho Consumer-Owned Utilities Association. But the coalition is ignoring the weight of biological and economic evidence on the side of dam removal:

The Bureau of Reclamation has estimated that the potential loss of irrigation water would cost Idaho's economy $45 million to $210 million a year, depending on the weather. If that isn't harsh enough, the state's economy would be further harmed by the need to preserve salmon habitat upstream of the dams. That means new restrictions on Idaho's ranching, logging, mining and all water-related industries.

Northwest Indian tribes have treaties guaranteeing the preservation of fishing rights. If the fish go extinct, the tribes could sue the government and possibly win as much as $6 billion.

The government now spends more money to save fish than it earns by selling electricity generated from the four dams. The Army Corps of Engineers estimated it would lose $251 million to $291 million a year if it couldn't generate electricity from the dams. Compare that with some $325 million spent each year on salmon recovery.

Breaching the dams will work a hardship on the Port of Lewiston and the individuals who use it to barge goods 140 miles to Pasco, Wash. But last week's draft study suggests a $24 million small subsidy to shippers and expansion of rail and truck services would mitigate those problems.

Kent Laverty, director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation, summed it up well when he said: "It's pretty clear. It's going to come down to removing the dams (and they're only 4 percent of the regional power network) or eliminating sport fishing and hurting farmers."

Sadly, the people in the government who know this best are unwilling to act.

J. Robb Brady
Asking the Fish to Wait
Post Register, December 29, 1999

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