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U.S. Rules Out Dam Removal to Aid Salmon

by Felicity Barringer

New York Times, December 1, 2004

(John Klicker, The New York Times) Two children watching a salmon pass by at a dam in Portland, Ore. WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration on Tuesday ruled out the possibility of removing federal dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers to protect 11 endangered species of salmon and steelhead, even as a last resort.

In an opinion issued by the fisheries division of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the government declared that the eight large dams on the lower stretch of the two rivers are an immutable part of the salmon's environment.

Endangered fish, the opinion said, can be protected by a variety of measures, including carrying fish around dams and building weirs - a new type of weir that works like a water slide - to ease young fishes' journey through dams as they swim downstream to the ocean. The total cost of the 10-year effort was projected at $6 billion. Assuming annual expenditures of $600 million, this represents a slight increase over existing spending for this purpose.

"It is clear that each of the dams already exists, and their existence is beyond the present discretion" of federal agencies to reverse, the opinion said.

The decision is a departure from the Clinton administration's approach to salmon protection. In 2000, it adopted a policy that allowed for dam removal, although only if all other measures had failed.

The Bush administration opinion, first released in draft form in September, provoked immediate outrage on the part of environmentalists and some tribal groups, who see it as another in a series of federal actions weakening protection for the salmon that are an integral part of the regional identity of the Northwest, and whose numbers have been sharply reduced over the decades by overfishing, dam construction, industrial pollution and suburban sprawl.

Earlier this year the fisheries division proposed including fish bred in hatcheries along with their wild cousins when calculating whether a salmon species is still endangered.

Environmentalists say the administration is retreating from the goal of recovering salmon to robust populations, settling for the status quo.

A spokesman for the fisheries division disagreed, saying the actions the agencies were taking or planned to take would be sufficient to protect the salmon. In a conference call Tuesday afternoon, officials of the fisheries service and the other agencies involved pointed out that they had drafted a letter addressed to the citizens of the Northwest with the assurance that "this approach does not represent a reduction in our commitment to salmon recovery."

In May, a senior Commerce Department official wrote to Congress that despite the decision to include hatchery fish when determining the health of fish populations, the department would probably conclude that most species currently considered endangered would remain so.

In a conference call Tuesday afternoon on the guidance to dam operators, Bob Lohn of the Northwest regional office of the fisheries service said, "The actions proposed by the federal agencies do provide major steps in making their operations fish-friendly." The dams already include fish ladders that enable many adult salmon to reach the higher parts of the rivers where they spawn.

The policy is effectively a roadmap to guide the operations of the federal agencies and power authorities that operate dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. It also includes an appendix with detailed prescriptions for "reducing the risk factors" for eight of the 11 species - prescriptions which, in some cases, call for some commingling of hatchery and wild fish.

But, Mr. Lohn added, the policy "does not suggest that the dams result in no damage or that nothing should be done" to mitigate the effects that occur. Referring to the letter, he added, "We desire and we are eager to work with the region, with states and tribes, to complete the comprehensive plan" to set priorities for salmon recovery.

But one representative of the National Wildlife Federation immediately asserted that the letter to the citizens did not have the standing of the formal biological opinion and so amounted to no legal commitment. John Kober, the wildlife program manager in the group's Seattle office, said, "What we'd likely find if this plan were carried out in 10 years is exactly where we are today - fish hovering near extinction thresholds and never getting one step closer to recovery."

The National Wildlife Federation, along with the State of Oregon, successfully sued the Commerce Department, parent of the fisheries service, winning a judgment in 2003 that found that the Clinton policy, which included the possibility of dam removal among other remedies, was too vague and did not go far enough to protect the fish.

That judgment, by Judge James Redden of Federal District Court in Portland, opened the door for the Bush administration to revisit the issue and produce the opinion that was announced on Tuesday.

After the new policy was proposed in September, Judge Redden expressed skepticism at a court hearing, warning that the administration could be headed for a "train wreck."

Mr. Kober said Tuesday that "we certainly are looking seriously at continuing our litigation as a last resort," in light of the new opinion. An Oregon fish and wildlife official said officials there were still studying the opinion.

Felicity Barringer
U.S. Rules Out Dam Removal to Aid Salmon
New York Times December 1, 2004

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