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Feds: Save the Salmon or Face Breaching

by Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, December 22, 2000

National Marine Fisheries Service isn't recommending pulling dams yet

As expected, federal officials will not recommend breaching the four lower Snake River dams to recover salmon and steelhead.

But the threat of dam removal will serve as a stick to ensure nonbreaching recovery measures are both funded and implemented.

"Breaching those dams remains an option if the recovery efforts don't meet strict performance standards included in the strategy," said Donna Darm, acting regional administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service at Portland.

Darm and other federal officials said the federal government's plan, released Thursday, challenges the entire Northwest, federal agencies, Congress and the incoming Bush administration to see that nonbreaching recovery moves forward quickly.

The plan includes performance standards and calls for reviews three, five and eight years from now. Failing to meet the standards would likely move dam breaching back to the forefront of recovery solutions.

"If we don't get the funding to implement this, then dam breaching may be the only thing we can do," said Brig. Gen. Carl Strock of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Instead of removing the dams, the plan concentrates on so-called off-site mitigation measures that are expected to improve the survival of juvenile salmon and steelhead in their native streams as well as in the Columbia River estuary, where the fish make the transition from freshwater to the ocean.

"We believe this plan has the best chance of recovering the fish," said Darm. "We believe it will improve survival across all the life cycles of the fish."

The plan will also concentrate on actions that will immediately improve the fate of fish, such as screening irrigation diversions, clearing culverts that block migration, increasing stream flows and improving water quality.

In the estuary, the plan looks to remove dikes, decrease predation and restore shallow water habitat and wetlands that are used as resting spots by migrating juvenile salmon.

Harvest of adult salmon will be frozen at current levels and hatchery reforms will be implemented to ensure wild salmon are not harmed by their hatchery cousins. In some cases, hatcheries will be used to make sure the runs in the most peril don't blink out.

Darm said some 90 percent of juvenile salmon perish between the time they emerge from eggs and leave their native streams for the ocean. Even a small improvement in survival here could significantly improve the runs, she said.

But environmentalists are critical of that plan and say the federally protected wilderness areas of Idaho already are in near pristine condition.

Twelve stocks of Columbia Basin salmon are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, including four stocks in the Snake River. Saving them is expected to cost between $400 and $500 million dollars per year.

The price includes about $250 million that is already being spent by the Bonneville Power Administration. Under the new plan BPA ratepayers will contribute an additional $100 million a year and the federal agencies need an additional $175 to $190 million in annual appropriations.

Efforts to improve stream flows will cost BPA an additional 60 megawatts of power per year.

Getting the money is critical, because the success of the plan will be judged on its funding and implementation for the first few years. After that, biological standards will be used to measure its success.

If the plan stalls after three years, the Federal Caucus could seek congressional authorization for breaching the four lower Snake River dams, and further engineering studies required to remove the dams would begin.

Darm said the recovery work will go forward regardless of possible legal challenges by Indian tribes and environmental groups, some of which think the plan fails by not recommending breaching.

Eric Barker
Feds: Save the Salmon or Face Breaching
Lewiston Tribune, December 22, 2000

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