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Commentaries and editorials

McDermott Introduces Latest Version
Of Breaching Studies Bill

by Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter, March 28, 2007

U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) has introduced a bill (H.R. 1507) that calls for the GAO and the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a one-year study comparing current and proposed federal actions to recover salmon in the Columbia and Snake River Basins, including "partial dam removal."

The bill also calls for the study to identify the effects of global climate change on ocean and hydrological conditions, and to determine how such effects might impact federal actions necessary to achieve recovery.

McDermott has been trying since 2001 to get dam breaching studies back on the table, ever since the 2000 hydro BiOp pushed it off in favor of an aggressive non-breach strategy for operating the hydro system.

One big difference in his new bill from past attempts is the deletion of language that would have given authority for removing the lower Snake dams to the Corps of Engineers

But the latest version, called the Salmon Economic Analysis and Planning Act, still relies on old analyses like the PATH process and a long-since discredited report called the "Doomsday Clock" that pegged extinction of some Snake River stocks by 2017

In a letter sent to other members of Congress soliciting support for his legislation, McDermott said, "Several stocks of Snake River salmon are expected to become extinct in less than 15 years under current policies. A public policy and fiscal train wreck is all but inevitable unless we begin to have a full dialogue on all potential salmon recovery measures, including but not limited to dam removal."

By the time the original Doomsday report was updated (2001), ocean conditions had improved so much that return rates of Columbia Basin stocks rose from four to ten times--and well above--the 2-percent level often cited by environmental groups as a minimum requirement for recovery. But warmer water returned after a few years, causing productivity to deteriorate again through 2005. Now, conditions are improving again, and fish that migrated to sea last spring should return at higher rates than seen in the past couple of years.

Only one other Northwest politician, Oregon's Earl Blumenauer (D), has signed on as one of the bill's 32 cosponsors.

In November 2005, McDermott had up to 76 cosponsors for his proposed breaching studies legislation, and last June, 103 House members signed a letter to NOAA head Conrad Lautenbacher urging his agency look at all options for salmon recovery, including dam breaching. Twenty-five California politicians signed the letter, but only three from the Northwest -- McDermott, Diane Hooley (D-Ore.), and Adam Smith (D-Wash.).

McDermott's latest bill also calls for the GAO to review the various assessments on costs associated with removing the dams, including the economic effects on communities from dam removal and recovered fish populations.

However, "Revenue Stream," a recent report by the environmental coalition Save Our Wild Salmon touting potential billions in savings to the regional economy from breaching the dams, was found severely flawed by a panel of independent scientists last month.

In its review for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, the panel said estimates of costs--especially of replacement power if dams were breached--could be updated from the Corps of Engineers' 2002 study. The coalition voiced support earlier this month for the update when the panel presented its findings at the NPPC meeting in Boise, but did not acknowledge the serious shortcomings in its own report.

Others were not so kind. "We do not think more studies on dam removal are warranted," said Norm Semanko, executive director of the Idaho Water Users Coalition. "The decision was made in 1999. The fact that the faulty logic of the Revenue Stream Report disagrees with the work that was previously done by the Corps of Engineers and others is no reason to commission another report," he said.

That document only called for dam breaching studies to proceed if ESA-listed populations didn't improve, with 3-, 5- and 8-year check-ins to measure progress. If the hydro system is not meeting standards at the 3- and 5-year point, preliminary breaching studies could begin.

When the 2000 BiOp was released, NMFS assistant administrator Donna Darm said the science didn't support dam breaching. But the BiOp has since been challenged in court by environmental and fishing groups, and was tossed out by Federal District Court Judge James Redden, who ruled that many actions designed to improve habitat weren't reasonably certain to occur.

The BiOp process went into remand and produced the 2004 prescription for operations that adopted a whole new direction--one that separated effects on fish survival from the dams' existence from effects caused by their operation.

Two BiOps later, and with the current one in remand, federal agencies have made it clear that dam breaching is not an option under review for the foreseeable future, either.

"We do not object to increasing knowledge about effective recovery measures. But we do object to telling the scientists what the answers should be," said Glenn Vanselow, executive director of Pacific Northwest Waterways Association. "This bill focuses on one recovery measure, breaching the Snake River dams. Congress should not spend taxpayer money on a narrowly focused study that will simply increase the divide between the interest groups in the region."

Vanselow noted that improvements at the dams have increased survival three-fold since the seventies, and federal agencies say survival today is as high, or higher, than it was in the 1960s, before the last four dams were built.

Bill Rudolph
McDermott Introduces Latest Version Of Breaching Studies Bill
NW Fishletter, March 28, 2007

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