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Administration Releases Final Plan to Save Salmon

by Rocky Barker
The Idaho Statesman, December 22, 2000

Proposal delays decision on breaching Snake River dams

The Clinton administration released its final plan for saving endangered salmon and, as advertised, it delayed a decision on breaching four dams on the Snake River in Washington state.

Federal officials say it's now up to Congress and the incoming administration of President-elect George Bush to show they can preserve the fish that are a symbol of the wild character of the Pacific Northwest, and save the dams.

"What is important in today's final fish plan is that it does not call for breaching the lower Snake River dams, and it puts Idaho in control of its water through the ongoing Snake River Basin Adjudication negotiations," said Gov. Dirk Kempthorne. "The federal report contains much of what the Northwest governors had already negotiated among ourselves."

But the biological opinion released by the National Marine Fisheries Service added a tough series of performance standards and deadlines that force federal agencies to put in place an expensive and restrictive program to save the ocean-going fish. If the programs aren't implemented or the salmon don't respond, dam breaching remains the most promising alternative.

"This approach challenges hydroelectric system operators, hatchery and fishery managers, users of habitat and virtually everyone who influences the life cycle of the fish to meet rigorous survival goals," said Donna Darm, acting regional director of the Fisheries Service.

Federal and regional officials have three years to prove they're serious about saving endangered salmon and steelhead by carrying out the actions promised in the plan. If the agencies don't force farmers to screen irrigation diversions, require loggers, miners and developers to reduce water pollution, keep flows on the Snake River high during migration and fund costly habitat restoration programs, the National Marine Fisheries Service can order even more restrictions.

It also must ask Congress to fund engineering and feasibility studies for breaching the dams if enough isn't done. Congress also must provide enough funds to make the programs work, said Brigadier Gen. Carl Strock, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pacific Northwest division engineer.

"If we do not get the funding to implement this, dam breaching may well be the only thing we can do," Strock said.

Then the Pacific Northwest has five more years to see whether the actions it takes are enough to keep 12 stocks of salmon from going extinct.

If the programs to restore damaged habitat, improve water quality and reduce the negative effects of dams and hatcheries aren't enough, then federal officials must decide whether to breach four Snake River dams in Washington or allow the salmon to go extinct.

The three-year deadline comes a year before the next presidential election.

The final eight-year check-off comes the year of the next presidential election.

"This is Clinton's going-away present," said John Hoehne, Republican Sen. Mike Crapo's chief of staff.

The plan was released as a biological opinion by the fisheries service. The service said the hydroelectric system on the Snake and Columbia rivers jeopardizes the survival of 12 stocks of salmon and steelhead. But using the flexibility allowed under the Endangered Species Act, it outlines "reasonable and prudent alternatives" to offset the harm from the dams.

Idaho officials and farmers who use water from federal reservoirs on the Snake River across southern Idaho were pleased their dams were left out of the opinion. A separate biological opinion will be released later, after a settlement is mediated between irrigators, the state and the Nez Perce Tribe, said Ken Pedde, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation deputy regional director.

Idaho currently sends 427,000 acre feet of water, enough to keep Shoshone Falls flowing for two days at high flows, down river from reservoirs to help speed the river for salmon migration. The new plan doesn't take Idaho off the hook, but it reduces the threat the federal government will order farmers to give up water for fish.

"We've never had a legal finding that our operations jeopardize the salmon," said Norm Semanko, executive director of the Idaho Waterusers Association.

But the decision has a direct effect on the lives of farmers and other water users along the Salmon River and its tributaries.

The plan calls for an ambitious program to screen their diversions, to improve water quality and spawning habitat in the river and important tributaries like the Lemhi, Pahsimeroi and East Fork.

Farmers along the Lemhi have been working for a decade to improve spawning habitat on the river where Merriwether Lewis first tasted salmon.

They have voluntarily given up water they would otherwise have used on crops or for livestock to allow salmon to migrate to the spawning grounds they have fenced off from cattle.

But during the past two years, a mile-long stretch of the river has dried up in low water. The area is not spawning habitat, but fisheries service officials are demanding farmers provide enough water to keep the river from running dry even in low water.

Bob Loucks, a former University of Idaho extension agent who lives on a Lemhi tributary, is among a group of farmers negotiating with the fisheries service.

He and state officials hope they can reach an agreement that helps the fish, but keeps farmers in business. Complicating their efforts is a lawsuit filed this week by the Idaho Watersheds Project and The Committee for Idaho's High Desert, requiring federal officials to halt irrigation where it blocks salmon migration.

If farmers are forced to give up the amount of water fisheries officials want, "they might as well buy out this valley," Loucks said.

What bothers Loucks and others is that only 2 percent of the salmon the Lemhi actually could support return to spawn, he said.

"There is no question that the dams are the biggest influence on how many fish return to these mountain ecosystems," he said.

"But I don't support breaching, that's a political decision."

He and his neighbors depend on power from the four dams that produce 4 percent of the Pacific Northwest's electricity.

"Before they talk about breaching dams, they had better come up with another source of electricity," Loucks said.

Environmentalists said the plan was based on over-optimistic scientific projections, and several expressed their intent to sue. Indian tribes in Oregon, Washington and Idaho with treaty rights to fish for salmon expressed disappointment federal authorities did not immediately recommend breaching the four dams.

"The salmon are not only a symbol to us -- they are a part of us, our culture, our spiritual beliefs, our health and our way of life," said Samuel Penney, Nez Perce tribal chairman.

"We are in a unique place in history. Extinction is not a legacy we want to leave for future generations to come."

Rocky Barker
Administration Releases Final Plan to Save Salmon
The Idaho Statesman, December 22, 2000

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