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Fish Agency Lets Dams Off Hook

by Erik Robinson
The Columbian, December 1, 2004

Columbia River Basin dam operations don't jeopardize imperiled salmon and steelhead, according to a new biological opinion released Tuesday by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Conservation and tribal groups immediately vowed to challenge the Bush administration's new opinion in court. Industrial users of the river embraced it as a step in the right direction.

The document, finalized Tuesday after a draft version was released on Sept. 10, provides guidelines for federal dams to be operated in a way that doesn't drive 12 stocks of imperiled salmon or steelhead toward extinction.

In a major departure from past federal policy, the new opinion essentially declares federal dams to be a permanent part of the landscape.

The biological opinion determines what has to be done to comply with the Endangered Species Act. With the new opinion, fisheries service officials will focus on guiding managers on how to operate federal dams.

"Many effects on fish occur from the existence of the dams, not on how they're operated," said Bob Lohn, the NMFS regional administrator in Seattle.

That's significant, because dams account for a major portion of the loss of salmon.

Dams directly harm salmon by killing them as they pass through turbines or over spillways. They indirectly harm fish by creating large reservoirs where predators lurk, water temperatures rise and slow currents stymie migration.

Federal officials said a variety of other federal environmental laws and treaties ensure the U.S. government's ongoing commitment to salmon-protection in the Columbia Basin. Bonneville Power Administration officials said the Northwest Power Act, among other laws, will ensure that the government will continue providing money for various habitat, hatchery and other improvements to offset the damaging effects of the dams.

Federal funding for recovering salmon in the Columbia Basin last year amounted to $572 million, with BPA ratepayer dollars comprising more than half of the total.

"We recognize that, collectively, we have far more legal obligations than strictly the Endangered Species Act," Lohn said.

Some Columbia River tribes, whose rights to fish are spelled out in a series of 19th-century treaties with the federal government, have joined conservation groups in pushing for river operations that more closely simulate the pre-dam environment.

They advocate breaching four dams constructed on the lower Snake River between 1961 and 1975, although few Northwest politicians have endorsed dam-breaching.

One tribal representative vowed to haul the fisheries service back into court.

"This biological opinion fails to meet the tenets of sound policy, economic policy or the law," said Olney Patt Jr., executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

"Neither the tribes nor the people of the Northwest can afford to pretend federal dams do not jeopardize the salmon."

Other river users contend the large runs of recent years validate past investments in habitat improvements and other measures to boost salmon.

"Clearly the investments we've made are making a difference," said Glenn Vanselow, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association.

"The record numbers of fish we're seeing year after year show this. It's time to get to work, and put the new, improved plan into place."

The administration drew up the new biological opinion after U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland ruled the previous opinion illegal.

The National Wildlife Federation, a plaintiff in that case, is likely to return to court, said John Kober, wildlife program manager for the organization in Seattle.

Kober said the group is frustrated by the fact that the fisheries service hasn't produced a recovery plan, as the Endangered Species Act requires.

"We have no recovery plan, and we have a biological opinion that may not even stave off extinction, so we don't see a lot of other options," he said.

Erik Robinson
Fish Agency Lets Dams Off Hook
The Columbian, December 1, 2004

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