the film
Commentaries and editorials

New Plan Rules Out Dam Breaching

by Rocky Barker
The Idaho Statesman, September 1, 2004

Salmon advocates say feds put politics ahead of science

Eight dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers do not jeopardize the survival of endangered salmon and steelhead, according to a new plan that will soon be released by the Bush administration.

The new plan, which is expected out in seven to 10 days, reverses federal fisheries officials' scientific opinion. The plan, ordered after U.S. District Judge James Redden rejected the federal salmon plan in 2003, also will rule out breaching four dams on the Snake River in Washington. It also will allow federal dam operators to produce more electricity in a manner they say won't hurt salmon. But federal officials who announced the plan Tuesday gave few details.

"This is a win-win scenario for salmon and for the citizens of the Northwest," said Robert Lohn, Northwest regional director of the National Marine Fisheries Service. Salmon advocates point to the continued low returns of Snake River sockeye salmon (see and the prevailing scientific view that the dams are the major threat to Idaho's salmon as evidence that the new opinion is based on politics.

"It's like saying cigarettes don't cause cancer," said Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United. "It's a giant leap backward for salmon recovery — it's a tremendous backslide." Rather than a backslide, Lohn characterized the new plan as an increased commitment from the federal government, with even higher fish survival standards for dam operators and other federal agencies in the region to meet.

The new position is justified because of dramatic increases in the returns of salmon since 2000, said Lohn. He credited rehabilitation of hundreds of miles of salmon spawning habitat, improved salmon passage technology, predator control and dozens of other measures taken, along with improved ocean conditions for the rise in populations (see

Most scientists credit the cyclical ocean changes, where salmon face fewer predators and increased food caused by an upswell in cooler waters, as the overwhelming factor in the increased returns. But Lohn said it is impossible to filter out what is caused by management and by the improved natural conditions. But the plan is designed to preserve the salmon even when the Pacific returns to the poor conditions experienced in the 1990s, Lohn said. "In writing this opinion, we tried taking into account the lean times and the good times," he said.

The major new action proposed in the plan to help salmon is the installation of devices designed to aid the passage of salmon through the dams —called removable spillway weirs. These new openings in dams would provide salmon with a smoother, easier route through the dams when water is spilled to aid their passage. The weirs also allow federal dam operators to spill less water, which Lohn said would allow them to spill longer at less cost. But salmon advocates say the technology is unproven with the existing weir at Lower Granite Dam only showing slight improvement in salmon survival.

"It's our opinion these have not been salmon recovery tools but power generating tools instead because they allow you to spill less without hurting salmon," said Michael Garrity, of American Rivers, a salmon advocacy group in Seattle.

The federal plan, called a biological opinion, approved in 2001 said the four dams did not have to be breached because a suite of actions, from flushing water from Idaho reservoirs down the Snake to habitat improvement, harvest controls and hatchery reforms would be enough to save the fish. But it left open the possibility of breaching four dams on the Snake River in Washington if the other measures didn't work. The new plan removes that possibility.

"We believe we can provide the needed protection for salmon without removing the dams," Lohn said. Redden rejected the old plan in May 2003 because, he said, it had no way to ensure that some of the measures in the plan would occur because they were outside of federal control.

Lohn said the new plan meets Redden's objection to the old plan by requiring such actions as habitat improvements, the restoration of flows in spawning tributaries, flow augmentation and other measures.

But he refused to provide details about whether that meant ranchers, farmers, loggers and others would face stricter federal controls at the same time federal dam operators would get more flexibility. "Whatever happens, the other action agencies will be held to a high standard of fish survival," Lohn said.

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

Rocky Barker
New Plan Rules Out Dam Breaching
The Idaho Statesman, September 1, 2004

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation