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Fish Plan Stalls Breaching

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, July 28, 2000

Four federal hydropower dams on the Lower Snake River will stay in place for at least eight years while other measures are taken to bolster salmon stocks, a White House official told Northwest and tribal leaders Thursday.

But if salmon populations throughout the Columbia River Basin do not begin recovering during that time, an order to breach the dams could result, said George Frampton, acting chairman of the White House Council for Environmental Quality.

The directive, while expected, comes after more than five wrenching years of regional division over whether the nation's most sophisticated hydropower system should be partially dismantled for the benefit of beleaguered salmon.

Smaller-scale dam breachings, in Maine for example, have been linked to rebounding fish populations and were thought by some to presage Thursday's decision.

But the larger Snake River dams will stay, at least for now.

In exchange for the no-breaching order, massive efforts will be undertaken throughout Oregon, Washington and Idaho to restore the watersheds that breed fish. Those watersheds -- extensive webs of rivers, tributaries, wetlands and drainage channels -- form the vast Columbia River Basin, an area the size of France. And they have been the sites of salmon recovery efforts costing $4 billion during the last 20 years.

But the results-based effort outlined Thursday will be yet more expensive and more difficult, Frampton said. He unveiled the program in a Portland hotel with Will Stelle, regional director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, after meeting for an hour with leaders of the basin's tribes.

"If there are things called for in the plan that people are not willing to do, then dam breaching will be a much more likely outcome," Frampton warned.

The plan cites several key areas:

But running beneath all measures is a detailed and unprecedented effort to measure success in salmon restoration, the linchpin of the federal government's plan. Annual evaluations of the growth or decline in 12 populations of threatened or endangered salmon and steelhead will be taken and measured against targets.

At five- and eight-year intervals, for example, the salmon population growth rate must be shown to be increasing by 10 percent or more or the fisheries service must reconsider its efforts. And if, after eight years, the growth rate is shown to be falling by as much as -0.5 percent or more, the fisheries service must order changes to the hydrosystem, possibly including breaching dams.

President Clinton on Thursday called for state and federal support.

"The people of the Pacific Northwest must be prepared to take the necessary steps," Clinton said in a radio broadcast. "Only in partnership with state and tribal governments and other stakeholders can we restore the salmon without resorting to costlier measures."

A spokesman for Gov. John Kitzhaber said the governor was still "chewing over" the plan and would not have a reaction until today.

From other quarters, however, response was swift and overwhelmingly negative.

Tribes with treaty rights to Columbia River salmon were deeply disappointed that the administration had not recommended immediate breaching. Leaders of the four tribes said they are considering taking legal action against the U.S. government. The tribes think breaching is required by treaties, which guarantee fish for harvest, signed with the United States in 1855. v "Salmon in the Snake River will go extinct under the current federal plan," said Antone C. Minthorn, chairman of the board of trustees of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. "The federal government has once again declared war on Indian people."

Conservationists who have waged a five-year campaign for breaching vowed not to give up.

"This is a long way from over," said Bill Arthur of the Sierra Club in Seattle. "I don't see this as an end. I see this as another roadblock that we have to get through."

Further, conservationists said they were not comforted that breaching would be reconsidered if other measures fail. Scott Faber, director of policy for American Rivers in Washington, D.C., said under the administration's plan fish could not benefit from breaching until 2020 at the earliest.

That, he said, would be too late for the most imperiled stocks, such as wild Snake River spring/summer chinook, whose numbers currently are in the mere thousands. "The administration is gambling on the future of Snake Rive salmon," Faber said. "It's a bet they are almost certain to lose."

It would take two years for Congress to authorize breaching if it received a recommendation to breach in 2008. Corps officials have said it would take six to eight years to breach after receiving authorization and another three years after that for sediments to wash through so the river would be improved for salmon.

Bruce Lovelin, director of the Columbia River Alliance and the leader of a regional campaign against breaching, was equally unhappy with the plan. He said that while it does not call for immediate breaching it ultimately could mean the dams will go.

"We can look past our noses on this," Lovelin said. "If you've got an inept plan that is very costly, has no regional support and is biologically uncertain, you're in trouble. If it fails, dam breaching becomes closer to reality."

U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., said he planned to introduce legislation this year that would prevent the corps from getting funds from Congress to design dam breaching. "I'm disappointed that this administration has chosen to keep dam removal on the table," Gorton said. "This administration should listen to the people of Washington state (and) abandon its dam removal proposals."

Frampton, though, said critics are wrong to look only at the dams. He called the plan the most ambitious conservation effort in American history.

Frampton said while science has shown breaching to be the "single most effective thing we can do" to help Snake River runs, it is not been shown to be necessary for saving those salmon. Besides, he said, while four runs of endangered or threatened salmon return to the Snake River, breaching those dams would not help the other eight runs of listed salmon in the Columbia River Basin.

The federal plan was outlined in two documents, a draft "biological opinion" that outlines how the federal dams should be operated to help salmon and a draft Basin-Wide Salmon Recovery Strategy, which incorporates requirements of the biological opinion and includes additional measures to improve hatcheries, limit salmon fishing and restore habitat.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also released a draft biological opinion for bull trout and Kootenai River white sturgeon.

The federal agencies will make the documents final by the end of the year, following a 60-day review by the Northwest states and tribes. The fisheries service documents and supporting information can be found at

Taking steps to save salmon

Overhaul hatcheries
Federally funded fish hatcheries will be modified to reduce harm to wild salmon and improve survival rates of hatchery stocks. Strategies will include such actions as collecting eggs and sperm from wild fish and releasing the offspring into areas where those wild stocks live.

Remove some small dams
Although federal dams will remain, agencies will fund programs to install screens on irrigation canals and to remove barriers to fish, including some small dams.

Increase river flows
More water will be released from reservoirs in Idaho and Montana to help flush young salmon down the Columbia on their migration to the ocean.

Restore the estuary
Federal agencies will work to restore the health of the Columbia River estuary, the lower 46 miles of the river, where young salmon and steelhead feed before moving into the ocean. Projects will include removing tidegates and levees to allow tides to reflood 13,000 acres of land, and building new levees that protect farms and homes while restoring flood plains.

Improve passage at dams
Federal dams will be modified to make it easier for fish to pass by improving fish ladders, making turbines less lethal to young fish and changing spillway flow patterns to reduce dissolved gases.

Restoring habitat on federal land
The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management will begin restoring salmon habitat in 12 "critical watersheds" in Oregon, Washington and Idaho by improving stream flow, removing barriers to fish passage, reducing sedimentation and rebuilding buffers along waterways.

Jonathan Brinckman
Fish Plan Stalls Breaching
The Oregonian, July 28, 2000

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