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Locke Scolds U.S. Agencies Over Salmon Recovery

by Erik Robinson
The Columbian, August 2, 2001

STEVENSON -- Gov. Gary Locke on Wednesday criticized the slow pace of federal efforts to help salmon in the Columbia basin.

Locke fretted that without faster action on plans to improve stream habitat in Columbia and Snake river tributaries, the federal government may find itself forced to breach four federal dams on the lower Snake River in Eastern Washington. He said that would be an "economic disaster."

"I believe we need a new approach," the governor told water resource professionals gathered for a conference at Skamania Lodge.

Locke, who opposes dam-breaching, called for better coordination between the nine federal agencies involved in protecting endangered fish stocks, private landowners and local governments that have to live with the consequences of federal policy decisions.

Locke cited the recent experience of farmers in Southern Oregon as an example of "resentment boiling over."

Until last week, farmers suffering from drought conditions were barred from using water from Upper Klamath Lake to irrigate their crops in an effort to save an endangered sucker fish. In an act of civil disobedience, farmers diverted water from the lake to irrigation canals. The federal government relented and is allowing a limited amount of water to be used for irrigation.

"Folks are taking the law into their own hands," Locke said. "We don't want to go down that road. If ever there was a time to act, it's now."

Federal agencies need to do a better job of working with each another and with private landowners to improve the habitat of tributaries that support imperiled runs of salmon in the Columbia and Snake river basin, he said.

Despite a sweeping federal proposal in December to improve habitat, reform hatcheries, curtail harvest and make dams more fish-friendly, Locke said little has actually happened on the ground.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on a biological opinion issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service on the federal hydropower system's effect on imperiled salmon.

Without adequate progress, the opinion calls for the government to reconsider dam-breaching as early as 2003.

"The federal approach is not working and not even close to working," Locke said.

The biological opinion was issued in the final month of the Clinton administration, leaving it to President Bush to make the strategy work.

In an interview afterward, the Democratic governor didn't explicitly blame Bush. Rather, Locke attributed the lack of progress to the slow-working machinery of the nine federal agencies taking part in the salmon recovery strategy for the Columbia basin.

"We're just not seeing a coordinated, cohesive effort," Locke said. "The clock is ticking. We've got to start showing some measurable results and progress."

Ice Harbor, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Lower Granite dams on the lower Snake River in Eastern Washington provide enough electricity to power a city the size of Seattle, water to irrigate farm lands and a waterway to ship farm goods to international markets, Locke said.

Breaching those dams to save salmon would deal a crippling blow to that region's economy, he said.

"I think that would be a huge economic disaster in our state," the governor said.

Brian Gorman, a fisheries service spokesman in Seattle, said he thinks "it's a little unfair" for Locke to expect large strides in accomplishing such a complex recovery plan so soon.

Gorman said progress has been made, but the region's ongoing drought has made matters difficult for everyone.

The Bonneville Power Administration, for example, has spilled only a fraction of the water it pledged to help juvenile salmon migrate past dams toward the ocean.

"I think we all feel the governor's frustration, and we all want like hell for this recovery effort to succeed," Gorman said.

Erik Robinson
Locke Scolds U.S. Agencies Over Salmon Recovery
The Columbian, August 2, 2001

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