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NMFS Plan Calls for Breaching Preparations

by Mike Lee, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, May 24, 2000

Federal agencies should prepare to breach the four lower Snake River dams while continuing to look for other salmon-saving alternatives, says a plan promoted by the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Engineering studies on how to breach the dams would "begin immediately," as would efforts to "ease the economic impact" of dam breaching under a proposal that's working its way through the National Marine Fisheries Service, the CEQ said in a press statement.

"This strategy would not sidestep or delay a decision on breaching," said George Frampton, acting chairman of the CEQ. "Rather, it would address the issue head-on by establishing firm parameters under which breaching would be pursued."

At the same time, agencies must "pursue all other reasonable options" to improve river flows, modify dam operations, protect and restore salmon habitat, reform hatchery operations and continue to limit salmon harvest, said the CEQ, which now is enmeshed in Northwest salmon recovery efforts.

"The science does not clearly indicate that breaching is the only possible option, nor does it allow us to take that option off the table," Frampton said.

Gov. Gary Locke, whose office was briefed Friday by the White House, said the federal direction gives the Northwest a needed reprieve from demands for an immediate decision on dam breaching.

"I have consistently opposed breaching the Snake River dams, and I'm pleased the federal government is going to take more time to study the issue," Locke said in a prepared statement. "Meanwhile, we need to put our energy and resources into the real problems that will affect the health of wild Snake River steelhead and salmon stocks now."

NMFS' full recommendation about the dams and myriad other salmon and hydropower issues is to be released in mid- to late June. But the core of the policy was unveiled late Friday by the CEQ in a faxed press statement that did not reach some of the region's newspapers.

"This goes a long way toward describing the likely shape of the strategy," said Elliot Diringer, CEQ spokesman, who was unsure about the apparent glitch in the announcement. "But I want to emphasize that there are no final decisions, and the devil is in the details."

Among the critical components of the fish-saving plan are the exact nature of the performance "triggers" that would be used to gauge the effectiveness of salmon recovery efforts. The triggers would be designed to put the dam breaching question to Congress if standards aren't met.

Diringer could not say Tuesday what kinds of performance measures are being considered. But an example might be the number of returning adult fish.

"I think the administration is still trying to find its way through the fog here," said Scott Bosse, conservation scientist at Idaho Rivers United in Boise. "There is a lot of wrangling going on in Washington, D.C., over exactly what is going to be in that document."

Bruce Lovelin, at the Columbia River Alliance in Portland, agreed that federal efforts seem disjointed and said he has limited confidence in the imminent plan.

"What the administration appears to be doing is again ducking the question, punting it out of here," he said.

Although Bosse praised the attempt to start dam breaching technical studies, he said the performance measure clause is absurd.

"We have had a 30-year track record to look at," he said. "Do you wait until the last fish arrives at Bonneville Dam to say nothing we have tried has worked?"

Speculation among fish watchers this week is that the agencies are looking at a five- or 10-year period to continue monitoring salmon stocks with the triggers in place.

"My bottom line question is, 'What the hell is going to be different in 10 years than what we know today?' " said Chris Zimmer of Save Our Wild Salmon in Seattle. "It looks to me like the longer you wait, the harder it gets."

On Friday, the administration briefed officials from Northwest states about its salmon recovery plan, which should be in place by early fall. NMFS' plan, known as the Biological Opinion, or BiOp, was supposed to be delivered Monday but will fall about a month behind schedule, agency spokesman Brian Gorman confirmed Tuesday.

"This is about the most complex biological opinion that my agency has ever written," he said. During the delay, the 1995 BiOp governs river operations.

Also in June, the agency plans to release an updated version of its "All-H paper," which gives options for an approach to salmon recovery by coordinating efforts in hydropower, habitat, hatcheries and harvest. It was not clear Tuesday if that document will have a recommendation on the Snake River, but Gorman promised the BiOp will "give clear direction on what must be done with the Snake River dams."

The Army Corps of Engineers is redrafting its own plan for the Snake dams, a document that was critiqued at public hearings around the Northwest earlier this year. Its recommendation about the dams should be released by the end of the year - however, it will be shaped by the NMFS policy released next month.

Until then, speculation will continue to simmer.

"I think this is pretty urgent to get this on the table," Zimmer said. "The public needs to know what the Clinton administration's plan is."

Mike Lee
NMFS Plan Calls for Breaching Preparations
Tri-City Herald, May 24, 2000

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