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States Object to Feds' Fish Program

by Mike Lee, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, October 11, 2000

Northwest governors are challenging the federal government's salmon recovery plan, saying it's flawed, vague and unscientific.

And they want the National Marine Fisheries Service to defend its program, which sends millions of dollars worth of water downstream to make the region's rivers faster and colder for fish.

"Washington does not believe NMFS has indicated the clear benefits of flow augmentation for fish recovery," said Curt Smitch, natural resources assistant to Gov. Gary Locke.

The most recent questions about the controversial flow program were submitted by Oregon, Washington and Idaho in response to NMFS plans this summer to protect endangered salmon in the Columbia Basin. Earlier this year, Northwest governors, including Marc Racicot of Montana, leveled similar objections in a joint paper.

This fall, each state critiqued the federal fish program in letters obtained by the Herald. The letters raise a variety of issues state officials want resolved, including a respect for states' rights, a clear direction for hatchery programs and a viable alternative if current efforts fail.

Among the most common topics was "flow augmentation," which NMFS uses to make the impounded Columbia-Snake river system run more like a natural river.

Idaho's report says the flow program has an "unsubstantiated biological benefit." Idaho wants human needs such as irrigation water to be considered by "agency officials zealously but unintelligently pursuing their environmental objectives."

Washington asked for a meeting by year's end at which state and federal officials could have a "thorough discussion" of fish flows.

NMFS spokesman Brian Gorman on Tuesday said he was not aware of agency plans to defend its flow policy to state officials, but it may happen. Federal officials had just received the "substantial" state and tribal comments in recent days and were not prepared to discuss how they may alter the fish recovery program.

If states get their way, the federal program will undergo substantial revision.

Washington is "very concerned" about NMFS plans to defer to the Northwest Power Planning Council a significant part of the federal salmon recovery program. The council is a regional group composed of members appointed by the four Northwest governors.

"We want to work directly with the agencies and not with an intermediary vehicle that does not have this fundamental responsibility" of salmon recovery, said Smitch, questioning how citizens would be heard in a council planning process that largely involves tribal and state governments.

Smitch also raised "a very significant issue regarding the lack of consistent standards applied by NMFS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service" to forest and farm practices.

That's one reason why Northwest governors have asked for one federal official to coordinate salmon recovery.

State sovereignty was a key issue.

Paula Burgess, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber's natural resources adviser, said federal agencies haven't done enough to ensure states and tribes are "partners" in salmon recovery.

And Idaho demanded NMFS respect state law and processes, including private property rights.

"Regional salmon recovery efforts have the real potential to unfairly burden Idaho's culture and economy," Idaho said.

Smitch also said NMFS needs more specific studies determining "delayed mortality" caused by dams once fish reach the ocean.

"The role of these factors is an essential component impacting the future of the Snake River dams" and should be a study priority, he said.

While commending the general approach of NMFS strategy, Burgess also found plenty of room for improvement. For starters, she said, NMFS has overestimated the possibilities of salmon and steelhead recovery.

"As a result, (NMFS) underestimates the survival improvements necessary," she said, noting the agency bases fish survival chances on "optimistic assumptions" about what is "essentially the status quo."

Mike Lee
States Object to Feds' Fish Program
Tri-City Herald, October 11, 2000

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