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Breaching Dams Could Be 'Last Resort'

by Rocky Barker
Water World, September 16, 2009

Obama Officials Tweak the Bush Plan to Manage Salmon. Will It Finally Get the Court's Approval?

The High Price of Salmon graphs compare cost of salmon recovery and run size at Bonneville Dam. Salmon levels would have to drop to mid-1990s levels -- when some runs came close to winking out -- before the federal government would even study breaching dams under the plan announced by the Obama administration Tuesday.

"Breaching of the Snake River dams remains on the table in this plan, but it is considered a contingency of last resort," said Jane Lubchenco, undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator.

The plan would require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to start planning next year how to study breaching four dams in Washington's lower Snake River and drawing down the reservoir behind John Day Dam.

But the actual studies wouldn't be triggered unless the four-year running average of populations of some specific salmon runs dropped to within 10 percent of the lowest year since 1980.

A separate "rapid response" contingency plan would be triggered when salmon population levels dropped to close to what they were when the fish were first listed on the Endangered Species Act in 1991.

This would require actions like increased spilling of water over dams, increased predator controls and reduced harvest.

"Those triggers don't tell you whether you are succeeding, they tell you whether you have a disaster," said Todd True, attorney for Earthjustice, which represents environmental groups and fishermen challenging the plan.

The Obama administration said Tuesday that these contingency plans, along with estuary habitat improvements, increased monitoring and research, make the Bush-era plan for salmon and dams legal under the Endangered Species Act.

But now the administration has to convince U.S. District Judge James Redden that the changes it proposes will improve survival of 13 stocks of threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead. Redden said in May he believed the plans, called biological opinions "fail to satisfy the biological and legal requirements of the Endangered Species Act."

Lubchenco leads the effort to persuade Redden. The former Oregon State University oceanographer puts her own scientific reputation behind it.

"This plan is scientifically sound and precautionary. It is flexible enough to adapt to future changes, specific enough to tell us when immediate actions are needed, and forward-looking enough so that it will remain effective over its 10-year life span," Lubchenco said.

True and attorneys for the state of Oregon, the Nez Perce Tribe say the plan is based on a faulty standard -- requiring salmon to be "trending toward recovery" -- to determine if dam operations jeopardize the fish.

Redden himself wrote in May he was skeptical of the recovery standard the Bush administration used.

"Even if 'trending toward recovery' is a permissible interpretation of the jeopardy regulation, the conclusion that all 13 species are, in fact, on a 'trend toward recovery' is arbitrary and capricious," Redden wrote.

But Lubchenco argues the new plan requires that the fish must have an "adequate potential for recovery," a threshold set by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The plan has wide support from the states of Washington, Idaho and Montana; all of the Columbia River Indian tribes except the Nez Perce; and the region's utilities, farm groups and other customers of the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets power from the hydroelectric dams.

Norm Semanko, director of the Idaho Water Users Association, said the Obama administration decision respects Idaho water rights.

"Now is the time for the region to move forward with the overwhelming consensus that exists to implement the plan for the benefit of the fish and continued delivery of water and power for the residents of the region," Semanko said. "We are hopeful that the judge will now allow these successful cooperative measures to continue."

House Natural Resources Committee ranking Republican Doc Hastings of Washington criticized putting dam removal back on the table.

"The extremists who brought this lawsuit may be critical about this plan because dam removal wasn't delivered on a silver platter with promises of wrecking balls arriving next week, but they got what they wanted from the Obama administration and they'll try and convince Judge Redden to give them even more," Hastings said.

Rocky Barker
Breaching Dams Could Be 'Last Resort'
Water World, September 16, 2009

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