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Commentaries and editorials

Saving Dams and Salmon Stocks

by Larry Sheahan, State Senator
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 25, 2003

When people begin discussing dams, fish and water, I start paying attention.

As vice chairman of the Senate Parks, Fish and Wildlife Committee, these issues are important to me and to the people of Eastern Washington.

Last month, a federal court gave the National Marine Fisheries Service one year to revise its 2000 Biological Opinion, which was designed to help salmon recover in the Columbia River Basin. It's ironic that the court-ordered revision came at the same time NMFS had scheduled a biological opinion review to make sure the salmon stocks were improving.

Any debate on whether to take out the dams should end now. The dams must stay where they are, continuing to provide needed energy, water, flood control and transportation for the region. I'm confident we can continue to see salmon stocks increase while we protect the dams.

NMFS had already scheduled a biological opinion review at three-, five- and eight-year intervals. The court's decision allows NMFS to do a more comprehensive review and fix some of the technical problems with the biological opinion.

The judge ruled that small sections and programs of the biological opinion had not been properly reviewed according to standards set in the Endangered Species Act. NMFS either has to remove the programs from the biological opinion and re-evaluate its effectiveness or apply the ESA standard to the sections missed.

I agree with the State Farm Bureau when it said, "Based on the figures of the past couple of years, we expect the science and the reality of recent strong salmon runs to result in a federal recovery plan that safeguards the benefits of hydropower and a working river for the people of Washington state, as well as benefiting salmon and the environment."

The argument that the dams must be removed to save salmon is totally debunked when you review recent salmon returns in the Columbia River Basin. The 2002 count for Columbia River fall chinook was more than 700,000, the third-largest return since 1948. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife predicts the 2003 return will be above the average as well. In addition, the 2002 coho are nearly double the 2001 returns.

Robert Stokes, a retired natural resource economist, explained the increase in a June 29 article in the Spokesman-Review.

He wrote, "The salmon are returning, nearly 2 million in 2001, a record since counting began in 1938. Ocean conditions always cause cycles, but the consistent improvement that has occurred since 1997 suggests long-term progress is taking place."

I feel strongly that the biological opinion provides the necessary framework for salmon recovery. It just needs more time. With continued coordination and decision-making at the local level, we can enhance salmon stocks while protecting the dams.

Unfortunately, several groups have continued to fight NMFS' biological opinion. The court's decision to require a review also delays an end to this discussion.

For some reason, many of these groups have only one goal in mind -- destroy the dams. Immediately after the federal judge asked NMFS to review the biological opinion, several groups filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue. They wanted the dams removed.

In addition, several groups asked the judge to dismiss the biological opinion in its entirety. If the biological opinion had been thrown out, it would have allowed these groups to sue federal agencies to immediately remove the dams, claiming they violated the ESA. Wisely, the judge gave NMFS one year to fix the biological opinion, keeping our dams safe.

The loss of the dams on the lower Snake River would absolutely devastate the economy of Eastern Washington. Three of the four dams affected by the ruling are in the 9th Legislative District, which I represent. If the Snake River dams came out, the dams on the Columbia River wouldn't be far behind.

Statistics from the Port of Portland clearly outline the importance of the river system to our area. For example, the entire Columbia Snake River system generates about 75 percent of our area's electricity. Imagine what would happen if we lost all of that power.

Farmers also would suffer because the river system irrigates half of the 7.3 million acres of farmland in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Not only would farmland irrigation be affected, but also the transportation of farm products would be halted. In 2002, more than 12.2 million tons of grain, hay, animal feed and other products were moved on the river. In addition, about 45 percent of the 10 million tons of exported wheat travel down the river to worldwide markets.

The dams must stay. They'll provide not only water and transportation for people, but also a safe habitat for fish. Salmon are adaptable. By working together, we can find a solution that benefits everyone.

Larry Sheahan, R-Spokane, is the Senate majority floor leader. He represents the 9th District, which includes Whitman, Adams, Asotin and Garfield counties and parts of Spokane and Franklin counties.
Saving Dams and Salmon Stocks
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 25, 2003

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