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Reject Dam-Breaching Theology

by Editorial Board
The Oregonian, December 18, 1999

U.S. Fish and Wildife Service, a critic of barging salmon around dams,
muddies the water by favoring breaching

No matter how much money has been spent on salmon recovery in this region and no matter how many dollars will be spent on it in the future, the fact remains that the life cycle of the salmon is still pretty much a mystery.

Because it is, fisheries managers, using computer models fed by unreliable jack counts and other mythologies, have been free to speculate on what happens to these imperiled Columbia River Basin salmon and steelhead. They advance their theories and affix blame, regardless of the uncertainties.

Ideally, at some point in the great national debate over what to do to about these fish, hope remains that scientific evidence -- not politics or ideology -- will win the day.

So far, though, the new science, based on hands-on monitoring of real fish going to real places, is only dribbling out. The uncertainty has left the field open to manipulation by people who carry their policy views to the point of theology.

Just this week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service broke ranks with other federal agencies to recommend breaching four dams on the lower Snake River as the best way to aid salmon and other wildlife. This is a confusing conclusion in light of the latest scientific information gathered by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Last month, the fisheries service -- the federal agency with jurisdiction for protecting salmon and steelhead under the Endangered Species Act -- said this about dam breaching:

"Unless dam breaching increases survival below Bonneville Dam by upwards of 60 percent, it seems unlikely that dam breaching by itself can recover spring/summer chinook stocks. It might seem surprising that dam breaching does not yield a dramatic and clear effect with minimal uncertainly, given the obvious impacts of dams. The reason for this is that the fish passage systems and barging of fish are effective at getting fish below Bonneville Dam."

That the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sees things differently comes as no surprise. That agency for years has believed that barging the fish around the dams is a failed strategy. It apparently sticks to that theory, even though the recent fish-monitoring program has demonstrated that barging the fish may be more effective than once thought. We hope the agency will evaluate the new science more carefully when it makes its final report to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers next summer.

The corps is completing a four-year, $20 million study that weighs the costs and benefits of dam breaching and three other alternatives. In releasing preliminary results Friday, though, the corps missed an opportunity to spell out its preferences for salmon recovery.

Earlier, the corps had promised to recommend a preferred alternative, but it backed away because it felt there were too many uncertainties about salmon mortality. The problem with that, though, is that even doing nothing is a decision of sorts, and recommending something is what we're paying the corps to do -- regardless of whether it generates controversy.

That is not to minimize the difficulty, or to understate what is at stake. Dam removal is virtually irreversible, but so is the disappearance of wild salmon. It's also true that properly analyzing the biological, economic and social effects of any policy is more important than meeting some arbitrary deadline.

Unfortunately, while we're gathering the facts, the salmon theologists keep spinning their tales of theories past, and the fish continue to decline.

Editorial Board
Reject Dam-Breaching Theology
The Oregonian, December 18, 1999

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