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Salmon Plan Protects Dams

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, December 22, 2000

The federal recovery plan holds out the possibility of dam breaching
if other efforts in the Columbia Basin are not successful

The U.S. government has erased any doubt about the fate of four massive hydropower dams on the Snake River in Eastern Washington: They will not be breached to save salmon.

Instead, other measures, including ambitious restoration of rivers and streams and a freeze on fishing levels, will be mounted.

But the federal plan for saving Columbia Basin salmon, made official Thursday in three volumes topping 1,200 pages, also contains a clear threat: If actions called for are not under way in three years -- and if salmon returns fail to meet targets set for five and eight years from now -- dam breaching must again be considered as a remedy.

Even with that threat, the long-awaited directive came as enormous relief to industrial users of the vast Columbia River Basin and others who had watched conservationists this fall mount a last-minute battle against the dams. "The best science and reason prevailed -- for now," said Scott Corwin of the Pacific Northwest Generating Cooperative, which represents rural electric cooperatives.

"This plan is a major step in the right direction," said Bruce Lovelin, executive director of the Columbia River Alliance, which represents industrial users of the Columbia and Snake rivers.

Conservationists and tribes, who said Snake River salmon cannot be saved unless the lower Snake River dams are breached, said they are considering legal action.

"This is a big disappointment for many of us who have worked so hard on behalf of inland salmon of the Northwest," said Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United, a Boise conservation group.

"The federal plan is laced with waste, extermination and eventual failure," said Don Sampson, executive director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, representing four tribes.

Thursday's dams announcement was part of a salmon recovery blueprint drawn by eight federal agencies. Sweeping in its scope, it establishes a range of measures that will cost the Northwest and federal taxpayers between $700 million to more than $1 billion a year, including the cost of reduced electricity generation at dams where water is released to help salmon find their way to the sea. A ninth federal agency, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, declined to sign a memorandum supporting the plan.

George Frampton, President Clinton's top environmental advisor and acting director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, called the strategy the Northwest's best chance for salmon recovery.

"If it is funded and implemented as written, this strategy will reverse the decline of threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead over the next 10 years," Frampton said Thursday.

The plan nearly doubles in scale an endangered-species rescue effort that was already among the largest wildlife stewardships program in the world. About $475 million is spent annually on helping salmon and other wildlife challenged by dams in the Columbia Basin. Most of the money is acquired from a surcharge on electrical generation that adds about 20 percent to the price of electricity sold by the Bonneville Power Administration.

At the heart of the plan is a call to restore the basin's small rivers and tributaries, where salmon spawn, and the Columbia River estuary, where young salmon feed before leaving for the ocean.

The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are to invest $75 million a year improving the quality of rivers and streams that run through federal land by installing fences to keep cattle out of water, removing barriers to fish movement and other measures.

The Columbia estuary, largely, the river from its mouth at Astoria to Bonneville Dam, is to be made more hospitable to young salmon by removing dikes, an action that would create new wetlands and open new areas for feeding and hiding from predators.

Tribal, commercial and sport fishing limits are to be frozen at current levels. The plan calls for increased investment in measures that allow wild fish to be released alive, such as special nets that catch fish by their teeth instead of by their gills.

All 53 hatcheries in the Columbia Basin that receive federal funds must be assessed to ensure that hatchery-produced fish do not harm wild stocks. Those federally funded hatcheries produced 100 million of the 142.5 million young salmon and steelhead from Columbia Basin hatcheries last year.

"We believe this plan has the best chance of recovering the fish," said Donna Darm, acting regional director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, which leads the federal effort to restore salmon.

Darm said the Fisheries Service had not called for breaching dams because agency studies had shown that breaching alone would not be enough to save Snake River salmon. Also, Fisheries Service officials said, breaching the dams would not help all the imperiled salmon in the Columbia Basin. Only four of the basin's 12 stocks of endangered or threatened salmon and steelhead pass the Snake River dams.

"Public sentiment against breaching did not play a role" in the decision against breaching, Darm said Thursday.

Conservationists disappointed that the plan did not call for breaching, an action in which the earthen portion of each dam would be removed so the river could flow unimpeded around the concrete remnant, said they were pleased that standards had been set.

Those standards, said Bill Arthur of the Sierra Club in Seattle, should guarantee action. "The region better be aggressive, or we get breaching," Arthur said.

It was unclear Thursday whether the incoming administration of President-elect Bush would fund the plan at the levels laid out by Clinton's staff. While Darm and other Fisheries Service officials said they expected that the plan would be funded, they could not offer assurances.

Gen. Carl Strock, the regional commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, laid out the stakes: "If we do not get the funding to implement this, then dam breaching may turn out to be the only thing that we can do."

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber supported the directive even though he has called breaching a sound way to restore Snake River salmon, said Eric Bloch, a salmon adviser to the governor. Bloch said Kitzhaber considers habitat restoration, hatchery reform and fishing limitations critical to saving Columbia Basin salmon.

"It sounds like it has the basic elements," Bloch said Thursday. "You can't make a good decision about breaching dams until you give a really strong effort to these other measures."

Related Links:
Federal Plan
Columbia River Alliance
Pacific Northwest Generating Cooperative
Idaho Rivers United

Jonathan Brinckman
Salmon Plan Protects Dams
The Oregonian, December 22, 2000

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