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Salmon Plan Silent on Snake Dams

by Scott Sunde & Sam Skolnik
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 28, 1999

Federal agencies proposed yesterday what may be a final effort to save endangered salmon runs in the Columbia Basin, embracing everything from better habitat to smarter-run hatcheries -- but not dam removal.

"Extinction," said George Frampton, acting chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, "is not an option."

Frampton and representatives of other federal agencies threw on the table an array of efforts -- ultimately costing hundreds of millions of dollars -- to save 12 species of salmon and steelhead trout in the Columbia and Snake rivers protected under the Endangered Species Act.

"If we do nothing, salmon in the Columbia River are going to go extinct," said Will Stelle, northwest regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "It's as simple as that."

President Clinton urged cooperation to avoid extinction. "Only in partnership with state and tribal governments and other stakeholders can we restore the salmon without resorting to costlier measures," he said in a statement.

It appears, however, that litigation, not cooperation, will be the order of future days. Environmental groups and Indian tribes said they may sue to change what was proposed yesterday.

"The plan is dead on arrival, just like the salmon," said Peter Kelley of American Rivers, a Washington, D.C.-based conservation group.

Environmentalists were disappointed that the plan proposes waiting five years to determine whether the measures are working and that it avoids dam removal.

Tribes, too, want dams breached.

"The federal decision not to breach the Lower Snake River dams is a purposeful and conscious decision to cause the extinction of all salmon in the Snake River," said Antone Minthorn, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla. "Today is a dark day in the history of this great country."

The plan does not address declining salmon stocks in the Puget Sound region. A team of experts has just begun working on a recovery plan for Puget Sound salmon and is expected months from now to release a program that would call for many of the same measures proposed for the Columbia and Snake.

In the Columbia Basin, attempts will be made to increase water flows in streams and remove barriers to fish passage. Fish harvests would be capped or even reduced. Hydroelectric dams would be required to improve water flows and nearby habitat to protect fish. Hatcheries might be required to become "emergency rooms" that would raise and release wild fish.

The efforts, however, would stop short of doing what Frampton acknowledged "is the single most beneficial thing we could do" for the salmon runs: breaching four dams on the Lower Snake River.

Frampton acknowledged that political support for dam-breaching, especially from Northwest members of Congress, is lacking.

At the same time, the necessary studies needed to get the required congressional approval haven't been done. But the plan unveiled yesterday recommends that those studies, including engineering plans, move forward.

That would lay the groundwork for seeking approval to breach dams, which would be triggered if evaluations done after five and eight years showed continued declines in salmon and steelhead stocks.

In effect, federal agencies are gambling that hard-hit runs, such as those in the Snake River, will not decline. If they do, the government is betting that the stocks will not become extinct in the six to eight years it would take to remove the dams.

It's a risk environmental groups aren't willing to take.

"As written, it failed to get the job done," said Bill Arthur, Northwest regional director of the Sierra Club.

Arthur said the dire situation of many species of Northwest salmon means "we don't have the luxury of waiting eight to 10 years" to dismantle the dams.

"The plan is long overdue," added Chris Zimmer, spokesman for Save Our Wild Salmon, a Seattle-based coalition of environmental groups and commercial fishermen. "Unfortunately, it's not going to pass muster, legally, scientifically or publicly."

On the other end of the spectrum, U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., criticized the plan as "nothing more than cover for Vice President Al Gore," since it delays any decision on dam removal until after the presidential election.

"The people of our state deserve an administration that will be honest with them and work with them to recover salmon without forcing things on us. I intend to introduce legislation this year to prohibit this administration from using any funds whatsoever for the purpose of dam removal," Gorton said.

But U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the focus on dams has left people with the false impression that the only choice is to breach or not to breach. She praised the plan as moving beyond that debate.

"When partisan politics are injected into such a complex issue, it has the effect of dividing people rather than bringing them together," she said.

In 2005 and 2008, the plan will be evaluated. One performance standard would be whether efforts called for had been undertaken. Another would involve the status of salmon stocks in several different parts of the Columbia and Snake rivers.

"We're going to count fish," Frampton said. "We're going to see how they are doing."

The plan introduced yesterday would require changes not only by federal agencies -- the fisheries service, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Army Corps of Engineers and others -- but also by state agents, tribal governments and private landowners.

Incentives and technical help would be provided to help private landowners and other groups work to protect salmon, he said.

Just how much the plan will cost to implement isn't clear.

Bonneville Power Administration officials say fish-protection efforts should not increase electrical rates for homeowners nor should it cut overall power production.

State and tribal governments now have 60 days to comment on the documents introduced yesterday. Then federal agencies will produce a final plan.


The federal salmon-saving strategy outlined yesterday focuses on four major areas:

Habitat. Stream flows would be improved. Federal lands would be managed to protect fish. Along estuaries on the Lower Columbia, thousands of acres would be purchased and restored to provide more wetlands and rearing channels.

Harvest. Commercial and tribal fishermen would see harvest levels capped or cut.

Hatcheries. The way hatcheries are operated would change to reduce damage to wild stocks. Hatcheries would collect eggs and sperm from wild fish, raise the offspring in close-to-natural environment, then release them with a wild run.

Hydroelectric power. Dams would improve flows and spill to let fish pass more safely. Fewer fish would be trucked around dams.

For more details on the plans, visit the National Marine Fisheries Service Web site:

by Scott Sunde and Sam Skolnik
Salmon Plan Silent on Snake Dams
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 28, 2000

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