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Kitzhaber: U.S. isn't Fulfilling Dam Plan

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, May 1, 2002

The federal government has failed to carry out three-quarters of the measures it promised when it decided against breaching Snake River dams, Gov. John Kitzhaber said in a speech Tuesday night. He said the failure jeopardizes salmon recovery throughout the Northwest.

Further, Kitzhaber said the enormous Columbia River Basin is headed for the same level of catastrophe that gripped the Klamath River Basin last summer, when hundreds of farmers lost irrigation water after it was held back to protect endangered fish.

"We are headed for the same future in the Columbia River Basin -- an environmental, economic and community crisis," Kitzhaber said at a Spokane conference presented by the Sustainable Fisheries Foundation, a nonprofit organization with headquarters both in Washington and British Columbia. "That is what we are witnessing today."

Repeating a statement he made at a Eugene conference more than two years ago, the governor called it reasonable to consider breaching four Snake River dams -- removing their earthen portions to allow the river to flow unimpeded.

"Breaching emerges as a responsible and cost-effective option," Kitzhaber said. "It is not the only option, but it is a responsible one that should not be disregarded out of hand."

Kitzhaber has long been the strongest advocate for salmon recovery among Northwest political leaders, and his remarks were hardly out of character. But they were significant because they are the first time a state or federal politician publicly criticized the U.S. government for not taking actions it had promised after deciding not to breach dams.

Kitzhaber, speaking to The Oregonian before delivering his speech, said he wants federal officials to know that unless they make stronger efforts for salmon they could be forced to again consider breaching dams.

"The purpose of this speech is to say that if something doesn't change dramatically, we're going to be driven back to the debate (over breaching dams) we were in two years ago," Kitzhaber said. "This is a wake-up call."

The National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency in charge of restoring salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act, ruled against breaching the Snake River dams in December 2000, after studying the matter for five years. They released an alternative plan, labeled "aggressive non-breach," that called for leaving the dams in place while implementing significant steps that include restoration of streams where salmon spawn, reform of hatcheries to reduce harm to wild fish by hatchery-born fish and increased fishing restrictions. The federal plan says breaching should again be considered if specific goals are not met by 2003, 2005 and 2008.

Dam-breaching advocates were thrilled by the speech.

"Kitzhaber is clearly the first governor to stand up and say this," said Pat Ford, the executive director of Save our Wild Salmon, a Seattle-based nonprofit. "He's saying, 'Here's the truth: The federal government is not doing what it said it would do to save salmon.' "

Plan on track, officials say
Federal officials, though, said their salmon-saving plan is on track. They said last year's near-record drought had set things back but urged patience.

"I don't think it is surprising that we weren't able to do everything we wanted to do, it would have been miraculous if we had," said Brian Gorman, a fisheries service spokesman. "But the beginning of any journey is always the hardest part. We are certainly on track."

Kitzhaber, in his comments to The Oregonian, disputed that. He said the Bush administration is proposing to spend $506 million on salmon recovery in 2003, which Kitzhaber said is only 55 percent of what fisheries service officials calculate is needed.

And Kitzhaber said the administration has avoided politically painful measures called for in the federal salmon plan, such as ensuring that enough water for salmon is let into the Columbia and Snake rivers each spring and summer.

"I think it's time to call the question," Kitzhaber said before delivering the address. "If we want to recover salmon, and we don't want to breach the dams, then we are going to have to step up to the plate. Delay is not an alternative, or we are going to start losing these runs."

Related Sites:
2001 Progress Report

Jonathan Brinckman
Kitzhaber: U.S. isn't Fulfilling Dam Plan
The Oregonian, May 1, 2002

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