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Agencies Seek Millions More to Save Salmon

by Mike Lee, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, July 28, 2000

Six years after a federal judge ordered a "major overhaul" of the Columbia-Snake hydrosystem, federal agencies on Thursday released hundreds of pages of "aggressive" plans and asked for hundreds of millions more dollars to save salmon from extinction.

As expected, the government did not advocate immediately breaching the four lower Snake River dams, deciding instead to evaluate that as an option by 2005.

But its program might create a situation that would force Congress to essentially write a blank check for salmon recovery or face Snake dam removal.

"It appears these Clinton administration political appointees want Pacific Northwest citizens to pay some unknown amount of money for some unknown benefit for salmon," said Bruce Lovelin, director of the Columbia River Alliance, a group of river users based in Portland. "And if we don't, they will call for breaching the lower Snake River dams."

The Biological Opinion -- better known as a Bi-Op -- that was released Thursday is perhaps the single most important river operations guide for the entire Columbia Basin. It was last issued five years ago, and comes several months after it was due.

The plan -- which federal officials said represents a broadening of 1995 recovery efforts -- pleased virtually no interest group. Washington's senior senator complained dam breaching was still an option while environmental groups complained that it wasn't chosen now.

"Give us the courtesy of taking a look," said George Frampton, acting chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. "What we have here is a comprehensive, basinwide problem, and we are trying to shape a comprehensive, basinwide solution."

But even before the National Marine Fisheries Service could officially release the documents, several national environmental groups indicated intent to sue the government for creating "a plan for more planning."

They refused to alter their demands for Snake dam removal, citing a Trout Unlimited study that shows the Snake River's spring-summer chinook will be extinct by 2017 under current conditions.

"It's a dog with no bite," said Gene Karpinski, of U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

The federal documents make no secret that answers are uncertain, even though it's been nearly a decade since the first Snake River fish stocks were listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The basin-wide salmon recovery plan, for instance, proposes a "complete monitoring program" to determine the status of salmon populations.

"It is simply an extension of the current efforts that have failed to stop the decline of salmon," said Mark Van Putten, CEO and president of the National Wildlife Federation.

Van Putten and Frampton both cited a need for everyone to work together to save salmon -- a resolve that will be tested almost immediately as the federal agencies go to Congress asking for hundreds of millions more dollars starting as soon as next year.

The federal spokesmen who released the plan in Portland shied away from disclosing projected budgets for their program, saying only that it would be an "additional hundreds of millions" of dollars more than what the region already spends.

The Bonneville Power Administration currently spends roughly $435 million a year on its fish and wildlife program, a number that could jump to more than $700 million in the next budget.

The money will be spent on a wide variety of programs, from spilling more water down the rivers and hatchery reform.

"Changes in the hydropower system will not be enough to return these stocks to health," said Will Stelle, NMFS regional administrator. He added, "This is a program, not a menu. Do not pick and choose what is easy."

Accordingly, the federal plan includes removing in-river barriers to fish, upgrading screens on irrigation diversions, increasing in-stream flow and purchasing high-quality riverside land for preservation. For instance, it aims to acquire permanent easements along 100 miles of stream per year.

Also, it targets the Yakima River as one of the key basins that must be restored. And it proposes an accelerated Columbia River estuary program that includes buying up to 5,000 acres of riverside land.

The federal plan seeks to limit fish harvest at current levels and reduce it where "necessary and effective." But it says additional harvest reductions "might provide small additional benefit" and should not be generally recommended to avoid trouble with tribal treaty rights.

NMFS seeks to ensure hatcheries protect wild salmon gene pools. Also, agencies support a program of collecting eggs and sperm from wild fish and releasing the resulting juveniles back into rivers where the fish could spawn naturally. Tribes would be allowed to operate some hatcheries.

At the dams, the federal agencies aim to reduce the practice of trucking fish downstream but to continue to use barges to keep fish out of the rivers when water conditions get too bad.

Hydropower plans also include trying to get "more and improved" water in the river system, something BPA officials said shouldn't make a substantial difference in the region's ability to generate power. Stelle said NMFS is working to secure more water from Idaho to leave in the Snake River and more water from Canada for the Columbia.

As for the Snake River dams, federal officials said breaching them is still an option because it's one of the virtually certain ways to help fish. But they want to hold breaching in reserve in case other actions fail.

One document says breaching is so expensive it could preclude other important efforts if attempted now.

The dam plan calls for reviewing progress in five years to determine if species restoration is on track. And it says federal agencies should continue to work on economic mitigation and engineering plans for dam breaching in case it becomes necessary.

The performance standards, referred to as "triggers," are in three parts. "Programmatic" standards show whether the agencies are putting in place what the Bi-Op demands. If Congress doesn't pay for new programs, this standard probably would not be met.

Second in line is the biological standard, which evaluates the health of salmon and steelhead populations. The key indicator is whether populations are increasing or decreasing.

Physical standards would measure changes in habitat, such as water quality and sediment.

If there is a "significant failure to perform" or population levels reach a certain rate of decline, dam breaching comes back as an option. By then, Stelle said, NMFS will have completed its "homework" on breaching.

"We'll pursue a practical course that will help both the economy and the environment," President Clinton said in a prepared statement. "Congress must also do its part ... and the people of the Northwest must be prepared to take the necessary steps."

Mike Lee
Agencies Seek Millions More to Save Salmon
Tri-City Herald, July 28, 2000

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