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U.S. Reports Seen Heating up Salmon vs Dams Debate

by Spencer Swartz
Excite News, May 17, 2000

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A noisy debate pitting salmon against four hydroelectric dams in the Pacific Northwest is set to grow a louder this month when two new federal reports spell out ways to save dwindling fish stocks.

"There's a lot hanging on what comes out in these reports...and there could very well be lawsuits if we are not happy with what is contained in them," said Amie Wexler, a policy associate at the environmental group Save Our Wild Salmon.

In the first report, to be issued next week, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) will set legally-binding guidelines for all federal dams in the Northwest, including the four in focus on the Lower Snake River in Washington: Lower Granite, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Ice Harbor.

The second report, based on studies by the NMFS and eight other federal agencies, will make non-binding recommendations to help salmon recovery efforts throughout the Columbia and Snake River basins, an area that extends into six states and Canada.

The number of salmon returning from the sea to spawn each year in these basins has declined from an estimated stock of 10 to 16 million a century ago to about one million today.

Environmentalists, Indian tribes, and commercial fisherman claim the dams pose the single biggest danger to the salmon, 13 species of which are now listed as endangered, and argue that the best way to speed the salmon's recovery is to take out the dams.

But the dams, among some of the biggest structures in the world, are also a major source of electricity, helping power cities from Seattle to Los Angeles, and are central to much of the region's economy.

The four dams produce up to 3,500 megawatts of power, enough to light up 560,000 homes, and account for about seven percent of all electricity generated in the Pacific Northwest.

They are also used to irrigate close to 37,000 acres of farmland in eastern Washington, and carry barges loaded with grain and other commodities shipped out of southern Idaho.

The region's vast agricultural and industrial interests acknowledge more can be done for the salmon, but are far from willing to see the dams torn down, a recommendation most government officials say is unlikely to appear in the reports.


One of the primary difficulties in the ongoing debate has been the lack of scientific agreement between the nine federal agencies, six states, and nearly two dozen interest groups involved in salmon recovery efforts.

Almost no one would challenge the evidence that hydropower dams, logging, mining, rural and urban development, pollution, and overfishing have taken a steep toll on salmon stocks.

But there is little agreement among scientists and the region's various interest groups on where to assign blame and how best to reverse the situation.

The strictest environmentalists call for removing the dams to allow the salmon to resume their annual migration from the sea to freshwater spawning grounds hundreds of miles up river.

This would also end problems of water warmed in reservoirs to harmful temperatures for the fish and cut the level of disolved gasses in the water at the foot of the dams' spillways.

"These dams must come out. This must be the cornerstone to any plan, but...we must also address the other factors contributing to the salmon decline," Justin Hayes, a spokesman for American Rivers, an environmental group that for the past two years has called the Lower Snake the most endangered river in North America.

Dam-removal proponents also note that if the salmon ever became extinct, the U.S. government would be legally bound to compensate local Indian tribes for lost fishing rights guaranteed by 19th century treaties.

While not disagreeing that dams have hurt the salmon, those opposed to tearing them down advocate alternatives, like extending a 20-year program of barging fish past the dams and raising river levels at key times of year to aid fish passage.

"We need a more comprehensive plan that looks at alternatives (to breaching the dams) does not offer us any certainty that dam-removal would increase salmon levels," said Bruce Lovelin, executive director of the Columbia River Alliance, which represents industrial users of the Snake river.

Adding to the debate's confusion are conflicts and lack of agreement between various federal agencies.

Last month, for example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees dam-compliance with the federal Clean Water Act, criticized a recent environmental study by the Army Corps of Engineers for failing to "adequately characterize" the effects of the dams on water quality.

In a letter to the Corps, which operates the 29 federal dams in the Northwest, the EPA also cited the absence of any preferred choice by the Corps in the list of solutions in its report.

Meanwhile, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service has flatly stated dam removal is the best way to preserve the salmon.


Any effort to remove the dams will have to clear Congress, which makes the final decision on managing federal assets.

And right now, knocking the dams down has little support in Washington D.C.

Regional elected officials at the state and congressional level, treading carefully so as not to offend labor or environmentalist constituencies, overwhelmingly favor keeping the dams in place.

But there is no unanimity on the issue.

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, has gone on the record to endorse dam removal as a viable solution.

Spencer Swartz
U.S. Reports Seen Heating up Salmon vs Dams Debate
Excite News, May 17, 2000

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