the film
Commentaries and editorials

Reaction to BIOP Focuses on Breaching

by Mike O'Bryant
Columbia Basin Bulletin - December 22, 2000

The reaction to the biological opinion of the Columbia River hydro system released this week by the National Marine Fisheries Service focused mostly on breaching four lower Snake River dams.

But not all looking at the breaching language in the same way.

Industry groups read in the BiOp that breaching is off the table -- at least for now -- while environmental groups see a plan with a quicker trigger than was included in the July 27 draft to get to what they call the "safety net" of dam breaching. The draft set check-in points at five and eight years, while the final BiOp also sets a three-year check-in.

Environmentalists see the BiOp as a challenge both to President-elect George W. Bush, who opposed dam breaching during his campaign swing through the Northwest, and to Congress to fund one of the most comprehensive and expensive recovery efforts ever for any species.

"This plan is better than the July draft because it adds stronger accountability to the three and five year evaluations and provides a potential path to dam removal," said Bill Arthur of the Sierra Club. "This provides an incentive for the Bush Administration and Congress to fund this plan or stronger measures will be required. Salmon are going to live or die on their watch and we will do whatever is necessary, including taking this to court, to hold their feet to the fire."

Ironically, according to Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth, George Bush was president when the first salmon were listed under the Endangered Species Act. Now, "after years of studies and inaction, the incoming Bush Administration must … implement the full range of restoration actions identified in this new plan, from improving habitat conditions to removing the four lower Snake River dams," he said.

Glen Spain, of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, called the BiOp a wake-up call to Congress. "You want a non-breaching plan? Then, go fund it," he challenged. "We agree with that strategy. I hope they push to fully fund the plan."

However, Bruce Lovelin, Columbia River Alliance executive director, said breaching is unlikely. CRA represents the interests of river navigators, electric utilities, forest products industry, irrigation and river-based communities.

"The federal agencies spent over $20 million to evaluate dam breaching and concluded that it is very expensive and they don't know its effect on salmon," Lovelin said. "Barring a successful legal challenge and a radical shift in science, we are comfortable dam breaching will not occur."

Industry groups offered cautious support of the BiOp, saying that breaching would devastate river navigation and irrigation in the region, severely impact electricity production and would be costly to the Northwest.

Lovelin said the region has spent almost $3 billion for salmon recovery in the past 20 years and, with the plan proposed by NMFS, the cost could run an additional $3 billion in the next five years. Other impacts, he continued, include reduced water withdrawals, restrictions on the use of habitat and a strain on electric reliability and prices. Others agree.

"We have yet to see all the details. But, with the West Coast suffering from unprecedented price spikes and shortages of electricity, it is reassuring to see NMFS listen to their top scientists who say breaching dams will not work," said Scott Corwin, of PNGC Power, which represents rural electric cooperatives.

He added that throwing away the peaking capacity of the four lower Snake River dams, which he says is 3,000 megawatts, would not bring back the fish. Nor, will breaching help in five or eight years, he said.

Most environmental groups said the breaching triggers set in the BiOp at three, five and eight years are strong. But they worry about the clarity of what needs to be done since the action agencies -- the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration -- won't have implementation plans completed until at least March 2001.

"The skeleton for a comprehensive recovery of Columbia and Snake river salmon could be here, but the devil is in the details that aren't clear yet," said Pat Ford, of Save Our Wild Salmon. "The plan seems to say that dam removal could be triggered in five years if the other measures are not working, but those other measures won't be specified until March."

However, industry interests are just as worried the goals are not clear enough, but for a much different reason: the threat of breaching.

"We are concerned about whether the goals are clearly defined and also whether the performance targets will be achievable," said Gretchen Borck, of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers. "For example, the conflict between protecting wild fish and our management of hatcheries and harvest hampers recovery efforts."

By all accounts, science is the friend of both environmental and industry groups. Information from industry groups points to new studies showing fish passage improvements through dams, including a recent study published by NMFS Science Center scientists in Science magazine that found that even with 100 percent survival through Snake River dams, salmon runs would continue to decline.

"By recognizing that the best new science does not support breaching dams, and by noting that more effort is needed in critical habitat areas like the Columbia estuary, this document takes some positive steps forward," said Glenn Vanselow, executive director of the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association.

Lovelin had another way of saying that, in his view, NMFS is taking a step in the right direction.

"We have been involved in this effort for the last ten years, and this is the first federal plan that can be truly called comprehensive," Lovelin said. "While the scientific community have stated that hatchery and harvest reform, along with habitat enhancement and dam passage improvements, must be included in any successful salmon recovery effort, the federal agencies have been slow to adopt these recommendations."

As a counter argument, information from environmental groups says the BiOp "reiterates strong scientific support for Snake River dam removal as an effective recovery measure." Their claim is supported by the Idaho and Oregon chapters of the American Fisheries Society. According to the Oregon Chapter:

"If society-at-large wishes to restore these salmonids to sustainable, fishable levels, a significant portion of the lower Snake River must be returned to a free-flowing condition by breaching the four lower Snake River dams, and this action must happen soon…."

AFS information says it does not consider dam breaching a panacea, as it has been accused of in the press, and that it must also be accompanied by actions in hatchery and harvest management, and habitat improvements, something that was also supported by Jeff Curtis, of Trout Unlimited.

"The vast majority of scientists have long recognized two key steps must be taken to assure the survival of Snake River salmon," said Curtis. "One is improving habitat, reforming hatcheries and addressing harvest. The other requires removal of four salmon killing dams on the lower Snake River."

AFS also says there are "significant problems with the NMFS mathematical model" and Curtis said the model is "goofy" and has led to an optimistic forecast that leaves little time for salmon recovery.

"The fundamental problem is that it is based on science which says we have a lot of time and that time is not there," Curtis said.

Most saw a general improvement in the final BiOp from its July 27 draft. Spain called it an overall good strategy, but it is questionable whether there will be enough benefit for Snake River stocks. He also said there are still areas of vagueness in the BiOp. For example, instead of listing measures, NMFS talks about processes and it leaves much up to action agency implementation plans and basin watershed plans, none of which we know at this point, he said.

"The Snake River dams clearly violate the Clean Water Act," Spain said. "But all the BiOp does is set up a process for a water quality plan. I doubt they can restructure the dams to meet water quality standards, but I'm willing to see them at least try."

There are other parts of the BiOp which have little to do with breaching dams that continue to trouble him, such as barging and references to power emergencies that could suspend the BiOp in low water years.

"It's not terribly surprising, but the BiOp still relies heavily on a barging program that has no demonstrable benefits," Spain said. "And, there is some troubling statements about energy emergencies in low water years that would let them undo the salmon measures and that would probably be against the law."

He added that the recent power emergency had to do with deregulation in California, a lack of long-range planning and defunding conservation programs, not salmon. "Salmon must not be sacrificed to appease an agency's incompetence," he said.

Since NMFS estimates that the productivity of the Columbia River estuary is only about 10 percent of what it once was and that the BiOp emphasizes this, Spain said that makes it "uncertain to dubious that the Corps' dredging program is compatible with this BiOp."

Link information:
Save Our Wild Salmon:
Sierra Club:
Friends of the Earth:
Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations:
PNGC Power:
American Fisheries Society/Western Division:
Washington Association of Wheat Growers:
Trout Unlimited:

Related Pages:
NMFS, Caucus Release Salmon Recovery Strategy

Mike O'Bryant
Reaction to BIOP Focuses on Breaching
Columbia Basin Bulletin, December 22, 2000

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