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Fish Plan gives Region Chance to Save Dams

by Editorial Board
Tri-City Herald, December 22, 2000

Federal agencies reiterated the challenge that faces the Northwest when they unveiled the final plan for recovering endangered fish stocks in the Columbia-Snake river system.

While the final "biological opinion" contained modifications from the draft released last summer, it still issued the same critical message to everyone involved with the river system.

"This approach challenges hydropower system operators, hatchery and fishery managers, users of habitat and virtually everyone who influences the life cycle of the fish to meet rigorous survival goals over a defined period," said Donna Darm, acting regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, the document's lead agency.

For the Mid-Columbia especially, that challenge is incredibly important. The biological opinion warns that if other fish recovery efforts are not meeting certain goals after certain "check in" periods - three, five and eight years hence - the process to move ahead with breaching the four lower Snake River dams would be triggered.

This provides a critical window for the region to demonstrate that a system overhaul, short of breaching, can be effective in restoring fish runs.

The plan is reported to cost about $352 million a year - about $100 million more than currently. It calls for an overhaul of the hatchery system and substantial habitat improvements. It sets minimum water flows in both rivers during certain times, requires more spill over eight dams and improves fish-passage facilities at the dams.

The decision not to proceed immediately to dam breaching is the most controversial.

But as federal officials point out, the expense of dam breaching would draw resources away from other likely more effective measures and would affect only Snake River stocks and not the other eight endangered stocks on the Columbia River.

That message, however, seems lost on environmental groups that have been promoting dam breaching. They have been running full-page ads in newspapers in the Northwest and elsewhere and last week even sent a letter signed by 200 pro-breaching scientists to President Clinton asking him to act in the waning days of his administration contrary to his agencies' work.

If environmentalists seem to have one-track minds about breaching, those who fought to keep the dams in place should resist any smug complacency over the election of a new dam-friendly president. In February, President-elect George W. Bush visited Pasco and vowed the Snake dams won't come down on his watch.

But if the attitude in the White House can change now, it also can change four years from now. The more success our region can show in the meantime, the more remote dam breaching will become as a possibility - no matter the political fashion.

Besides, doing what we can to restore dwindling fish runs is the right thing do.

NMFS' Basin-Wide Salmon Recovery Strategy lays out a roadmap for doing that in the most scientifically sound, cost-efficent and reasonable way.

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Editorial Board
Fish Plan gives Region Chance to Save Dams
Tri-City Herald, December 22, 2000

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