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New Salmon Deal Mostly Helps
Fish Downstream from Idaho

by Rocky Barker
Idaho Statesman, April 9, 2008

U.S. District Judge James Redden will soon get the chance to evaluate the latest plan of federal dam managers to offset the effects of dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers on 13 stocks of endangered salmon and steelhead.

The agencies added 200 new hatchery and habitat projects at a cost of $900 million over the next 10 years, which convinced three Columbia River tribes to drop their objections. But the biggest challenge the Bonneville Power Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation face is that nearly all of these new program aid salmon outside of the Snake River Basin.

And the price tag is raising the ire of their customers.

The biggest threat to Snake River fish nearly all scientists agree, is fish passage through eight dams, including four on the Snake River in Washington. The federal agencies, under orders from President Bush himself and with wide political support from Democratic leaders downstream, want to avoid talk about breaching those dams.

But the projects they offer as an alternative primarily help Columbia River salmon. Some critics of spending nearly a billion dollars more on this fix aren't convinced these projects will help recovery salmon.

The Northwest RiverPartners, a group of regional businesses that oppose dam breaching normally strongly support BPA. But they demanded a review of these new projects by an independent science panel.

"The answer to salmon recovery is not to throw more money at it, but to ensure that the dollars are well spent and deliver results," said Terry Flores, director of the Portland-based group. "A rigorous scientific analysis, and a comprehensive approach covering all factors affecting listed salmon, is essential to ensure this happens."

What makes Flores comments interesting is that she now is raising once again, the cost issue. BPA has long said that breaching the four Snake dams is a more expensive way of helping Snake River fish than not breaching, up to $550 million a year.

Environmentalists have long challenged that number, placing it at $79 million to $179 million. An independent group of economists splits the difference.

With $861 million spent on salmon in 2007 and more than $9 billion spent over the last 20 years, Flores' group of BPA customers is getting weary about the continually rising bill. However, they still pay some of the lowest rates in the country because of BPA's subsidies, because the aluminum industry has largely left the region, creating a surplus, and because the huge debt caused by the default of nuclear plants in the 1980s is going away.

Still, they expect the money to be spent wisely.

"Investments by the region's electricity consumers in fish and wildlife should be spent in a transparent and accountable process that uses the best science now available," Flores said.

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council, which represents the four states in the region, has planned to have its independent science review panel look at the programs. Some of the hatchery programs in particular, are aimed first at providing more fish for tribal and sport fishermen under the old paradigm of replacing the fish lost to dam building with hatcheries.

This approach, long debated by fisheries biologists, has genetically weakened some of the salmon stocks, especially those in the Upper Columbia, complicating recovery. Increasing the number of hatchery fish not only doesn't improve conditions for wild fish, it often reduces their resilience.

The Nez Perce have not joined the Warm Springs, Umatilla and Yakama tribes, which is likely one of the reasons there are so few projects in the Snake Basin. Idaho is in the last phase of negotiations for additional habitat and hatchery projects here, which would provide a case to Redden that the agencies are doing more in the Snake basin.

What I intend to ask BPA officials if this deal is finished, is why they felt a need to make a deal with Idaho. The state has supported the federal case since Republicans took over in 1994. There never was a threat Idaho might sue, which is what it gives up in the deal.

A spokesman for Gov. Butch Otter said Idaho won't give up its right to sue over a separate harvest agreement, known as U.S. v. Oregon, that allows tribes to catch more salmon and steelhead. Idaho has long been the biggest critic of what it considered over-harvest downstream.

The tribal harvest, unpopular with sportsmen, actually presents far less of a threat than the catch of Alaskan fishermen, who take Columbia and Snake River fish in the Pacific. Idaho has long worried about the impact of the Columbia River fall chinook fishery on Idaho steelhead and Snake River fall chinook.

But it will be hard for Idaho to legally challenge harvest approved by federal officials because the analysis of recovery, which underscores the legal justification of the two dam biological opinions and the separate harvest opinion, are inexorably tied. If they got a judge to strike down the harvest agreement, it would undercut the case on the dams, leaving them more vulnerable to a call on Idaho's water.

Idaho will do anything to protect its water except support dam breaching. At least that is its position now.

Rocky Barker
New Salmon Deal Mostly Helps Fish Downstream from Idaho
Idaho Statesman, April 9, 2008

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