Nobody Likes Waiting on Dam Decisionby Erik Robinson
The Columbian, December 18, 1999
PORTLAND -- The federal government on Friday decided not to decide whether to breach four federal dams on the Lower Snake River to help imperiled stocks of wild salmon.
In an environmental impact statement on the question of how best to move wild juvenile salmon past a maze of concrete obstacles, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers offered four alternatives for the public to chew on. But the corps decided not to claim a preferred alternative.
The non-decision united opponents and supporters on at least one point: nobody likes the wait.
"We're all frustrated here because we continue doing this slow dance spending money and creating government infrastructure," said Bruce Lovelin, executive director of Columbia River Alliance, an industry group opposed to breaching. "At the same time, salmon really aren't doing very well."
Bill Sedivy, of Idaho Rivers United, agreed. "The longer this drags on, the more painful it's going to be for the people of Idaho," he said. "By not releasing a preferred alternative, they're just trying to put this on the back burner. It's a stall tactic for political reasons."
Environmental groups have lobbied Vice President Al Gore to back the breaching plan, a decision that's bound to have repercussions in the 2000 presidential campaign no matter what the administration does.
Jeff Curtis, western conservation director for Trout Unlimited, said even though the corps decided not to issue a preferred alternative, he took heart in one aspect of the environmental impact statement. A report submitted by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service concluded that breaching is the best alternative for boosting native fish stocks.
"If you listen, you can just kind of hear the doors closing at least on the biology," Curtis said.
Anne Badgley, regional director for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said her agency's conclusion should not have been a surprise. She cautioned that it's not a policy statement by the Interior Department, but only a "narrowly focused" biological opinion of how to improve the survival of fish stocks in Southeast Washington.
"The bottom-line biological conclusion is really a no-brainer," Badgley said. "For native fish and wildlife, a free-flowing river is better than a dammed river and that should be obvious to anyone."
Federal officials attending Friday's news conference emphasized breaching or not breaching has to be viewed in the larger social-political context of repairing all that ails Northwest wild salmon while weighing it against the costs of breaching. That includes hatchery practices, overharvest of wild fish and stream habitat that's been degraded over the past century.
The Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams are part of a vast network of hydroelectric dams that gives the region some of the cheapest electric bills in the nation.
Will Stelle, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said the no-preference environmental impact statement ensures the public will get a chance to be heard on an issue so critical to the Northwest. Ultimately, he said, the government will reach a decision sometime next summer.
"There's some hard choices to be made, and we need the region to review these choices," added Brig. Gen. Carl Strock, commander of the corps' Northwest division.
So, the choices are these:
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