Snake River on Watchdogs' Sick Listby Robert McClure
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 10, 2003
Change in operation of dams threatens salmon, environmentalists say
Three years after the Clinton administration declined to disable four Snake River dams to help imperiled salmon, the Snake can be counted among the most endangered rivers in the nation, an environmental group says in a report due out today.
The report's release coincides with a decision expected today by a federal planning agency about changing operation of the Snake and Columbia rivers' dams in a way that fish advocates fear will harm salmon.
American Rivers, a Washington, D.C.-based group that focuses on river health, lists the Snake in an annual report as the eighth-most-endangered river in the country.
The fault can be laid with the Bush administration, American Rivers says, because it is failing to keep promises made in 2000 by the Clinton administration. Then, the federal government said it would make extraordinary efforts to help the fish without disabling the dams.
At the time, President Bush said on the campaign trail, "I say we can use technology to save the salmon, without leaving the door open to destroying these dams." Key members of Congress agreed.
But federal agencies have been dragging their feet, environmentalists say.
"The administration has not been asking for full funding and the Congress hasn't been providing it, but that's what they promised," said Michael Garrity of American Rivers.
A "report card" by the environmental groups said federal agencies should get a passing grade on fewer than one-third of measures promised to help the salmon.
Citing internal federal documents from November 2000, they say the budget for the project -- $271 million this year -- stands at only half the amount necessary.
Important projects are behind schedule, Garrity said, such as plans to rebuild salmon habitat where the Columbia meets the Pacific.
Federal officials, though, reject the criticism.
"I object to the (environmentalists) issuing a report card before we've had a chance to take the final exam," said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "Even if their numbers were right, and I don't believe they are, it still wouldn't be fair because we're talking about a 10-year project, and we've completed two years of it."
Bob Lohn, the Fisheries Service regional administrator, acknowledged "we're a little behind schedule" on a few things, but said overall the program is going well.
Lohn said the early budget estimates cited by environmentalists aren't realistic because agencies are still working on the recovery plan.
"Until you have a blueprint for the project, it's way too early to say how much that project will cost in total and certainly premature to say you're failing because you don't have the cash on hand," Lohn said.
Snake River chinook are some of the most imperiled salmon in the region. Snake River coho are extinct; sockeye are close to gone.
Four Snake dams built in the 1960s and '70s harm migrating young salmon each spring. Scientists documented how pressure changes blow out their eyes, poison gases suffocate them and a gantlet of spinning metal blades slices them.
Some other fish, collected to be loaded onto barges to bypass the dams, shoot down quarter-mile tubes with two 90-degree bends at 30 feet per second. Many later die.
Despite their clear disadvantages for salmon, dams have important advantages for people. They make cheap transportation of goods by barge possible, provide irrigation to 13 large farms, and produce enough electricity to run the city of Seattle.
With the Snake dams left in place, it fell to the Northwest Power Planning Council to recommend how federal agencies should operate those dams and about two dozen other federal dams in the Pacific Northwest. A pivotal issue is how much water should be sent downstream in the spring and summer, when young salmon need a boost getting to the ocean.
A Power Planning Council plan released last year worried environmentalists and Indian tribes. They feared that enhanced water flows envisioned in the salmon-recovery plan -- already missed in the plan's first two years -- would end up even further off track.
Council members were still working on the proposal yesterday.
The debate about how to save the salmon comes as returns of the fish are hitting levels not seen for decades. Scientists believe a shift in climatic conditions that improved salmon's ability to survive in the Pacific Ocean is largely responsible. However, that shift is likely to be reversed at some point, they warn.
Doug Marker, the council's director of fish and wildlife, argues that efforts to make inland rivers more hospitable to salmon must continue.
"We need to see these returns over a number of more years to see what this means for the populations" in the long run, he said. "What's going on in the ocean isn't going to lead to recovery."
Environmentalists fear that the respite provided by better ocean conditions will lead federal officials to go too slow on salmon recovery.
"This is a time when the federal government should be capitalizing on these returns to make them permanent instead of squandering the opportunity," Garrity said.
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