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Making Sense of Salmon Recovery

by Mark O. Hatfield
The Oregonian, June 11, 2004

Four years ago I wrote in this newspaper that the debate over breaching dams was causing the Northwest to focus on a costly and risky path instead of addressing the comprehensive needs of salmon. No "silver bullet," or single change in policy, will ensure that salmon thrive in our rivers and streams. Salmon recovery is slow, difficult work. This was reconfirmed in May with the administration's announcement that West Coast salmon currently protected under the Endangered Species Act would retain that status despite recently improved fish returns and a new policy on management of hatchery fish.

It will take concentrated cooperation over a long period to succeed. Sub-basin plans under review for each individual watershed in the Columbia Basin attest to this hard reality. These locally developed and implemented plans recommend improvements to the habitat, changes in use and operation of hatcheries, additional fish passage systems at dams and other stream impediments, and modifications in harvest regimes.

Today, I fear momentum toward salmon recovery may be diverted in a fruitless search for another illusory silver bullet: a guaranteed, long-term source of increasing funding for these efforts. Past costs to the region's electricity ratepayers for Columbia River Basin fish and wildlife mitigation are now well over $6 billion -- a staggering sum. And, each year the Northwest congressional delegation works hard to provide significant federal tax money for salmon recovery totaling in the hundreds of millions of dollars. But, congressional appropriations do not favor long-term regional projects. And, the Bonneville Power Administration's fiscal fortunes depend on a volatile mix of annual precipitation and wholesale electricity market prices.

So, what's to be done? A good first step is to improve how we choose to invest our limited resources. The current debate over whether to curtail summer "spill" at several Army Corps of Engineers' dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers provides a textbook example of an opportunity to prioritize efforts.

BPA estimates that spilling water to move juvenile salmon and steelhead past dams in summer, rather than sending the water through turbines to generate electricity, costs $77 million each year. Spill is one of several ways to move fish past dams. But, it is expensive and it is not uniformly successful at every dam. Because relatively few endangered fish are in the river during July and August, the unavoidable question becomes whether this is a cost-effective and broadly supportable strategy.

Some people fear that reducing spill means we are abandoning our commitment to salmon and steelhead. They unwisely equate a practice with a value. But, federal agencies contemplating a small reduction in summer spill are suggesting a more effective means of obtaining better fish returns at a lower cost. They are proposing alternatives that include protecting areas upstream in salmon rearing grounds, along with studies to track the effects of these changes. A summer spill program that increases fish survival, while still giving ratepayers needed relief, should be something we all can support

In the end, citizens demand accountability. Dollars alone do not define success. People will be more supportive of salmon recovery efforts if they know we have directed our resources to measures that bring the greatest benefits to fish and wildlife in a responsible manner. We must search for better ways to accomplish our goals or prospects for significant long-term funding almost certainly will fade, along with the hope of carrying out necessary work to ensure vibrant, healthy fish and wildlife populations far into the future.

Mark O. Hatfield served as U.S. senator from Oregon from 1967 to 1997.
Making Sense of Salmon Recovery
The Oregonian, June 11, 2004

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