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NMFS Finalizes Salmon Plan

by Andrea Otanez, assistant metro editor
Seattle Times - December 22, 2000

Breaching four dams on the Lower Snake River is not a near-term option, but it could be in three years if federal salmon-recovery plans released yesterday fail.

Final documents issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service establish regionwide benchmarks to determine if fish are rebounding, and say formal consideration of dam breaching could happen as soon as 2003, rather than 2005, the year specified in an earlier draft of the plan.

The "biological opinion" provides guidelines for operating Columbia River hydropower dams in order to protect 12 stocks of salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act. The "All-H Paper," also issued yesterday, creates a framework for reducing impacts of hatcheries, harvest and poor habitat on dwindling stocks.

While environmentalists applauded quicker consideration of dam breaching, they called for more details on how fish will be recovered. They also want more federal plans in place if agencies deem breaching necessary in three years, because actual demolition could take five to seven years after that.

"We support NMFS in this plan," said John Kober, regional organizer for the National Wildlife Federation. "But we want to make sure they are prepared for dam breaching if this plan fails."

A spokesman for a Columbia River users group said the plan keeps dam breaching in proper perspective by delaying action until improvements can be measured in other areas.

"Barring a successful legal challenge and a radical shift in science, we are comfortable dam breaching will not occur," said Bruce Lovelin, executive director of the Columbia River Alliance.

If the dams are breached and the river returns to a freer flow, industrial river users would lose a corridor to transport their goods.

Dam breaching has been a focal point since fish species in the region were first listed under the Endangered Species Act in the early '90s.

While breaching dams is likely to save Snake River fish, a broader-based approach makes more sense for species across the Columbia Basin, said Donna Darm, NMFS acting regional director.

"This approach challenges hydropower-system operators, hatchery and fishery managers, users of habitat and virtually everyone who influences the life cycle of the fish to meet rigorous survival goals over a defined period," she said.

In the hydropower portion of the plan, the federal government must take steps to improve water quality and manage volumes and flows to benefit fish. According to the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets energy from the hydropower system, about 10 percent of the region's power will be lost through new and existing fish protections.

"One-tenth means a lot in our current shortages - it's huge," said Ed Mosey, BPA spokesman. But the new plan won't go into effect until April, and if the region can't meet crucial power needs, a 1995 biological opinion currently in place can be waived, he said.

The recovery plan is projected to cost BPA about $352 million a year, and federal taxpayers $372 million a year.

Known collectively as the Federal Caucus, the nine agencies involved in the plan are NMFS, BPA, Fish and Wildlife, Bureau of Land Management, Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Tribes in the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission have asked the BIA not to sign the All-H document because it fails to restore treaty fisheries.

Jim LeBret, spokesman at the BIA Northwest regional office in Portland, said yesterday the agency is reviewing the documents and hadn't decided whether to sign.

Tribes, environmentalists and others have lamented the agencies' reluctance to breach the Lower Snake River dams while continuing to truck and barge threatened and endangered fish around the four structures.

A group of about 200 scientists on Monday wrote a letter to President Clinton, advising him to breach the dams as the soonest, best hope for Snake River salmon and steelhead.

They say the federal plan puts too much emphasis on tributaries and estuaries and not enough on corridors through which salmon travel to and from the ocean. Dams block the corridors.

Andrea Otanez, Seattle Times assistant metro editor
NMFS Finalizes Salmon Plan
Seattle Times Company, December 22, 2000

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