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NW Legislators Quiz Experts at Pasco Hearing

by Annette Cary
Tri-City Herald, April 28, 2000

Northwest lawmakers plan to take a message back to Washington, D.C., that they believe is not being heard there: Science shows restoring salmon doesn't have a one-step solution.

"For members outside of our region, it's been very easy to make a decision on whether or not to support dam removal without fully understanding the impacts of that decision and the efforts being done to restore salmon," said U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt Jr., R-Wash.

Thursday, in a five-hour hearing in Pasco, members of the House Committee on Resources heard testimony on changes that can be made now to support salmon populations.

"We shouldn't miss the opportunity to make real progress toward salmon recovery now, while we wait months or years for the outcome of the debate on the dams," said U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash. "Nor is it clear that we should trust the recommendation of our federal agencies on the dams once it is made."

The four Republican members of Congress attending the hearing, including Idaho Reps. Helen Chenoweth-Hage and Mike Simpson, oppose breaching dams.

They heard from scientists who said ocean conditions, seals and terns share some of the blame for the decline in salmon returning to spawn over recent decades. And they grilled representatives of federal agencies, making clear they feared politics has been overriding science and that agencies have been slow to look beyond dams to protect fish.

"Those who have a different agenda other than saving salmon have hijacked this issue," Chenoweth-Hage said. "Rather than home in on the real problems of salmon decline and real solutions to recover of the species, these groups have instead sought to fulfill their own special purposes - whether it be returning the river system to its pre-Columbian condition or thriving on the cash cow of research and grant dollars that depend on the problem never being solved."

Actions by the Army Corps of Engineers have raised questions about whether science or politics is driving policy.

Col. Eric Mogren, the deputy commander of the Northwestern Division of the Corps, said when a draft of a $20 million environmental study left his Portland office last year it recommended against breaching the four lower Snake River dams. Instead, barging fish around dams should be increased and other fish-friendly improvements made to the dam system as the preferred alternative, it said.

"It was fairly definitive based on the uncertainty of the science (then)," he said.

However, on Oct. 8, Mogren said he received "verbal guidance" that the draft report should not take any stand on the dams' future. Not taking a stand after an environmental study is rare, he said when pressed by the committee.

Hastings has asked the Committee on Resources to investigate.

Nethercutt also questioned Mogren on the effect the Environmental Protection Agency would have on the decision process. The EPA is expected to send a letter condemning the water quality below the Snake River dams.

The Corps has received more than 90,000 comments on its environmental study on the future of the dams, Mogren said. "The EPA is one of them," he said.

On May 22, another federal agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service, is expected to issue a report in favor of saving the dams. Instead of breaching, it will call for taking other steps to save salmon and would require performance standards be met.

If that doesn't increase salmon populations in five to 10 years, dam breaching would again be considered.

Eric Ilgenfritz, Columbia Basin coordinator of NMFS, said the H's - hydropower, habitat, hatcheries and salmon harvests - would be checked for results.

Measuring salmon harvests and the number of fish getting past dams would be fairly straightforward. But because habitat improvements would take so long to show results, standards there would have to depend on action taken, rather than demonstrable successes, he said.

Measuring improvements in hatchery stock would be more difficult, he said.

Now "there is a mosaic of hatchery policies that need to be made consistent," Ilgenfritz said after the hearing. Different hatchery techniques need to be studied and compared, he said.

Critics of hatchery fish say they are genetically inferior to wild fish that have adapted survival techniques to individual Northwest streams.

"There are some basic problems with (hatchery) fish," said Don Swartz, science and policy adviser for the Northwest Sportfishing Industries Association. "Although they look the same, they are different biologically."

Ilgenfritz also presented new results of a study looking at the number of salmon lost to harbor seals. Scientists examining seal droppings concluded they were eating 3 percent to 5 percent of the salmon runs for most of the year and up to 12 percent of the run in summer when fewer salmon were available to them.

Despite talk of dwindling salmon populations at the hearing, forecasts based on early returns of chinook to the Columbia and Snake rivers indicate double or triple the average number may come home this year.

If a year of cool coastal ocean temperatures is responsible, the trend could continue, said Nathan Mantua, associate professor of atmospheric science at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Salmon thrive in cool water, and, from the 1940s to 1976, ocean temperatures were cooler than normal. But waters warmed through 1998, and fewer salmon returned to spawn, he said.

Since 1999, temperatures have cooled, and that's expected to persist through summer, he said. And "if the recent past is an indication, cool temperatures may persist for 20 years," he said.

However, salmon face other challenges, including making it safely past Rice Island in the Columbia River estuary, the nesting site of the largest Caspian tern colony in the world.

Department of Interior studies have concluded 75 percent of the tern's diet is young salmon. More than 40,000 smolt tags have been found on the island.

The Corps planned to scare the birds off the man-made island to save endangered salmon. However, the National Audubon Society, Defenders of Wildlife and American Bird Conservancy won a temporary restraining order against the Corps earlier this month.

The federal government is appealing, but time is running short.

Dan Roby of the Department of Interior in Corvallis, Ore., said that in a week, too many eggs will be laid on the island for the birds to be moved.

"If the temporary restraining order is not lifted in the next few days, the game is lost," he said.

Hearings on the appeal were held Wednesday and Thursday, and a decision could come today.

Annette Cary
NW Legislators Quiz Experts at Pasco Hearing
Tri-City Herald, April 28, 2000

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