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Commentaries and editorials

A Commitment to Ensure
Survival of Columbia Basin Salmon

by Bob Lohn, Steve Wright, William Grisoli and Bill McDonald
Seattle Times - February 3, 2005

The Columbia River salmon is a treasured symbol of our quality of life here in the Pacific Northwest. Yet, today, 12 runs of salmon in the Columbia and Snake River basins are listed as threatened or endangered by human activity. So it's no surprise that the recently revised program to address the effects of dam operations on salmon should come under intense scrutiny.

We are the officials responsible for managing the federal Columbia River dams for the benefit of everyone in the region. We are committed to taking steps that ensure no salmon species goes extinct as a result of the operation of these dams. We are also determined to act as a positive force for salmon recovery throughout the Columbia Basin. We believe our actions support these words.

Our commitment extends to all the congressionally mandated purposes of the federal hydro projects. The dams provide flood control worth billions of dollars, produce 40 percent of the region's electric power, irrigate over 1 million acres of land and make navigation possible.

bluefish wishes to clarify the above equivocal statment which describes the benefits of the combined system of 29 federally owned dams in the Columbia basin. The four Lower Snake dams (which fishing groups and conservation groups are seeking to remove) provide:
Our responsibility is clear: to assure that salmon programs are carried out as efficiently as possible along with these purposes. Northwest ratepayers and U.S. taxpayers cover the costs and expect nothing less.

The Endangered Species Act requires that operating the dams not put salmon in jeopardy of extinction. A federal district court judge has ruled that some of the actions in the program we adopted in 2000 to help fish were not "reasonably certain to occur." We have now officially revised the program, remedying that problem. The program clearly identifies specific beneficial actions for each species and includes the tools to measure results.

But no longer will there be consequence if results are unsatisfactory: 2000 BiOp Actions 147 & 148 have been removed in the 2004 Updated Proposed Actions. See Are Dams Here to Stay?.

Compared with the 2000 version, the updated program will improve salmon survival in the basin. It encompasses all the substantive measures in both the 2000 and 1995 programs. These actions are working. The past four years have witnessed the largest adult salmon returns to the Columbia River in over half a century. Good ocean conditions contributed substantially, but similar conditions occurred in the past 60 years without such positive results.

The updated program builds on the existing effort. It includes added fish spill in April, protection and restoration of spawning and rearing habitat, control of salmon predators and improvement of hatchery programs. Especially notable is our objective to install new fish-passage facilities at all eight of the main stem Columbia River and Snake River dams within 10 years. These devices should improve salmon survival while reducing costs for electric ratepayers. We stress that all of these measures go beyond what was contemplated in the 2000 program.

While preserving the existing assets, the program includes flow augmentation and spill to assist fish, as well as structural improvements at dams. In the Endangered Species Act, Congress clearly intended to focus on the effects of future federal actions actions proposed after a species is listed. The act does not require or authorize the removal of federal dams built before it was passed. But it does require us to make sure those dams are operated in a way that protects the listed fish. Our response to the court meets all the requirements of the law (and awaiting judicial review).

The reality is that removing the four lower Snake River dams would impose economic hardship and would not help salmon throughout the Columbia River Basin. Only four of the 12 listed stocks spawn in the Snake and its (Idaho) tributaries, so breaching these dams would do nothing for the other species (from Washington and Oregon). The updated biological opinion addresses all of the threatened and endangered salmon in ways that make both biological and economic sense.

$6 billion will be spent over the coming decade while the Lower Snake dams provide $40 million annual profit. See lsr.htm.

The next step is to develop a comprehensive recovery plan covering all human activities on the river affecting fish, not just the operation of dams. This effort is off to a good start, addressing land use, water quality, hatchery operations, harvest management and more. Ratepayers and federal taxpayers will invest about $600 million a year $6 billion over the coming decade in the endeavor.

Under the auspices of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, a remarkable collaboration of local citizens, landowners, tribes and state and federal agencies has produced draft fish and wildlife plans for 59 Columbia River sub-basins. Now the multitude of federal, state and local programs aimed at salmon restoration need to be coordinated and focused so that we get the best biological results for our efforts.

A truly comprehensive recovery plan will require unprecedented cooperation among all of stakeholders in the region governmental entities, tribes, environmental groups and others. The federal agencies are firmly committed to this objective, and are willing to sit down with stakeholders to discuss how we enhance salmon while energizing the Northwest economy.

Bob Lohn is regional director of NOAA Fisheries
Steve Wright is administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration
William Grisoli is commander of the Northwestern Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Bill McDonald is regional director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
A Commitment to Ensure Survival of Columbia Basin Salmon
Seattle Times, February 3, 2005

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