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Preserving Dams, Restoring Salmon

by Editors
The Oregonian, September 18, 2004

A salmon plan repeats a familiar promise,
but dam fixes and other protections are more certain than breaching

In their new salmon recovery plan, federal fisheries officials conclude that the Columbia and Snake river dams are an immutable part of the Northwest landscape. At least for the near future, that's true.

That's not saying concrete is found in a state of nature, or that John Day Dam is a manmade equivalent of Mount Hood. Instead, it is a recognition that major dams in the Columbia system are not going to be punched open anytime soon, certainly not in the 10-year period covered by the federal government's proposed new plan.

Last year U.S. District Judge James Redden ordered NOAA Fisheries to write a new salmon recovery plan because its previous blueprint was too uncertain and relied too much on the promises and good intentions of groups outside the government's control.

We won't hazard a guess on whether this new proposal will pass muster with Redden. Yet it's hard to imagine that the one action sought by the loudest critics of the new plan -- dam breaching -- would satisfy Redden's concerns. Given the snarl of legal issues and the deep public and political opposition -- breaching would require an act of Congress -- dam removal may be the most uncertain promise of all.

It's a measure of how warped the debate over salmon recovery has become when the federal government and the Bonneville Power Administration pledge to spend $6 billion over the next decade and the only reaction is a collective howl that the Bush administration just wants to kill off salmon.

That said, we do have some serious concerns about NOAA Fisheries draft biological opinion, which is open to public comment through Oct. 8. (Send comments to, or write NOAA Fisheries, 525 N.E. Oregon St., Portland, OR 97232).

Most disturbing, the plan seems to suggest that Columbia River managers' only responsibility under the Endangered Species Act is to ensure that salmon runs do not go extinct. Our reading of the act is that it requires the recovery of threatened and endangered species, not just the barest survival of the fish runs. The goal ought to be sustainable, fishable numbers of salmon.

No one can be certain that NOAA Fisheries new plan, which is built around increasing survival of juvenile salmon by installing new spillway weirs at dams and further controlling fish and bird predators, is enough to restore salmon runs. The fishing groups and tribes so critical of this plan are right about one thing: We've all heard the promise of "fish-friendly" dams before.

Dams kill lots of salmon. No one is denying that. The question is whether the harm can be minimized to the point that the Northwest can preserve its dams and restore its salmon. NOAA Fisheries says that new studies show that 98 percent of young fish get safely past a dam fitted with a new weir.

That's encouraging, but the new weirs are still largely experiments. We're under no illusions that this plan is the last word on salmon recovery, or that dam removal is permanently off the table. In the end, like Judge Redden, we're still waiting for something certain about Northwest salmon recovery.

Preserving Dams, Restoring Salmon
The Oregonian, September 18, 2004

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