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Fish-Protection Plan Leaves Dams for Now

by Traci Watson
USA Today, July 27, 1999

The White House announced a proposal Thursday to save salmon and steelhead trout in the Pacific Northwest and dodged the issue of whether to destroy dams to make way for the fish.

But federal officials admitted they might have to take that costly and politically risky step anyway.

The proposal, released in Portland, Ore., calls on federal and local officials to take wide-ranging steps to help the fish survive after decades of overfishing and the damming of rivers where they breed. Among the provisions:

"Extinction is not an option," said George Frampton, acting director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

The plan tiptoes around the action some critics say would do the most good for the fish: removal of dams. Mature fish could more easily swim upriver to breed, and young fish could more easily swim downriver to the ocean, if parts of four dams blocking the Snake River in Washington were knocked out. The fish now hop ladders upstream and are shipped downstream.

But the dams provide water for irrigation and cheap shipping for farmers, and low-cost electricity for the entire region. Local members of Congress adamantly oppose breaching the dams and have sworn to block any legislation necessary to take that step.

The proposal, which would cost hundreds of millions of dollars a year, doesn't rule out dam breaching. Instead, it calls for evaluations of the fish's status in five, eight and 10 years. If populations plummet, officials could ask Congress to breach the dams.

Both environmentalists and those who want to keep the dams attacked the proposal as a severe disappointment.

Environmentalists said it was vague and unambitious. They also claimed that under the timetable, the earliest the fish could benefit from dam breaching would be 2020. By then, they said, some populations of chinook salmon could be extinct.

"This (plan) is a death sentence for salmon," said Scott Faber of American Rivers.

Others saw it as a stalling tactic to help Vice President Gore's chances in the presidential race. Gore, the likely Democratic nominee, has declined to take a position on the dams. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the GOP nominee-to-be, opposes breaching the dams. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., who has led opposition to destroying the dams, called the proposal "nothing more than cover" for Gore.

The proposal will undergo a 60-day public comment period before being finalized.

Traci Watson
Fish-Protection Plan Leaves Dams for Now
USA Today, July 27, 2000

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