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Snake River Dams No Longer Threat to Salmon, Official Says

by Jeff Barnard, Associated Press
Corvalis Gazette-Times, September 9, 2004

GRANTS PASS -- The removal of Snake River dams no longer has to be considered for restoring threatened and endangered salmon runs due to continuing improvements to the Columbia Basin hydroelectric power system, the Bush administration's top Northwest salmon official said Tuesday.

Strong ocean conditions, improvements made in the past four years and plans to add experimental devices called removable spillway weirs over the next 10 years to help fish over dams make it no longer necessary to hold dam removal as a backup plan, Bob Lohn, Northwest regional manager of NOAA Fisheries, said in a conference call from Portland.

"I think some of the disparity that has been present in the region, certainly among salmon biologists in that time, has been overcome by the fact that we now see it is possible to have substantial rebounds of fish with the hydrosystem in place,'' Lohn said. "The facts changed in the intervening time.''

A total of 14 populations of salmon and steelhead are listed as threatened or endangered in the Columbia and Snake River basins in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.

Under the Endangered Species Act, the operation of the eight major federal hydroelectric dams in the region cannot jeopardize the survival of those fish, and it is up to NOAA Fisheries to issue a biological opinion saying how dams must be operated to assure the fish survive.

In May 2003, U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland ruled that the biological opinion issued in 2000 was illegal because the federal government could not guarantee that habitat enhancements and upgrades to hatchery and dam operations would be done. The 2000 plan included a provision that if improvements did not occur, the government had to consider removing the four dams on the lower Snake River.

Lohn, joined by top executives of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dams, and the Bonneville Power Administration, which sells the power generated, offered a preview of the biological opinion that will be offered to Redden by Sept. 10. NOAA Fisheries missed the Tuesday deadline to get the full document to the court.

The biological opinion sets a new course for salmon recovery in the Columbia Basin, jettisoning a movement toward restoring the Columbia and Snake rivers to a more natural condition, and embracing the eight major dams in the environmental baseline for the region.

"The idea that the whole hydrosystem in the Columbia River is all of a sudden now determined to not jeopardize fish is quite a change in direction for the federal government,'' said Jim Myron, natural resources advisor to Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, whose predecessor, Gov. John Kitzhaber, called for the removal of the four dams on the lower Snake River.

Judge Redden, "has established some pretty high bars before,'' Myron added. "Whether this gets over Redden's bar is questionable.''

The Pacific Northwest Waterway Users Association, a coalition of barge operators, farmers, utilities and others, was pleased with the new approach, particularly the recognition that the dams are part of the landscape, said executive director Glenn Vanselow.

Lohn said the big new thing about this biological opinion was the addition of removable spillway weirs, which should be installed on all eight major dams within the next 10 years.

Related Pages:
22 Sockeye Return by Jennifer Sandmann, Seattle Times 9/1/4

Jeff Barnard, Associated Press
Snake River Dams No Longer Threat to Salmon, Official Says
Corvalis Gazette-Times, September 9, 2004

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