Government Criticized as Moving Too Slowly
by Stephen Power
WASHINGTON -- As part of a broader effort to save endangered Pacific Northwest salmon, the Clinton administration is under growing pressure from environmental groups to determine how it can sell dam-breaching to communities that rely on hydro-power for jobs, water and electricity.
But a month after announcing they would undertake such a study, administration officials have yet to set a deadline for the project, or even decide who will lead it.
The administration's delay has irked environmentalists, who see the study as crucial to bolstering their case for tearing down dams along the lower Snake River in Washington state. Some worry that if the administration does not complete the study by May - the deadline for a federal recommendation on how to save the fish - their cause will be undermined.
"Time's running out," said Scott Faber, a spokesman for American Rivers, a national conservation group. "The longer we wait to put together a credible plan, the longer it will take to build political support. Obviously, this is a complicated decision and there are a lot of bells and whistles. But it's essential to understanding the impact of salmon recovery options."
As part of a federal lawsuit filed by environmentalists in Portland, Ore., six years ago, the National Marine Fisheries Service is working to come up with a plan for resolving the salmon crisis. U.S. District Judge Malcolm Marsh originally gave the agency until the end of 1999 to devise a comprehensive solution but extended the deadline to this spring, when the Snake River spring chinook salmon start their migration to the ocean.
Last month, the fisheries service passed up a chance to endorse dam-breaching, saying the science was inconclusive and that it needed public input before making a recommendation. But the agency's regional director in Seattle, Will Stelle, promised a study of the potential economic costs of salmon recovery - specifically, in job losses - and how those costs could be offset.
Stelle declined to discuss the study at length this week but said he doesn't think it can be finished by April.
"This isn't a flash-in-the pan exercise ... something you just jot down on the back of an envelope on your way to work," Stelle said. "The purpose would be to provide a better, broader strategic context in which to evaluate the merits and demerits of the idea to breach or not to breach."
Dam-breaching is one of several options the federal government is considering as it tries to save the fish, whose numbers have fallen 90 percent since four federal dams were completed along the lower Snake during the early 1970s. Other options could include modifying the dams to make them more salmon-friendly or increasing barging and trucking of fish around the dams.
Because of the enormous costs of dam-breaching, some environmentalists worry the Clinton administration is trying to put off a decision until after the 2000 elections. Tearing down the dams would cost about $ 1 billion, according to various federal estimates, in addition to $ 24 million in lost barge transport, $ 15 million a year in new irrigation expenses for farmers, and higher electric bills for residential customers, according to various estimates.
But environmentalists see silver linings, such as new spending on recreation.
"We think the economics are going to reveal that once you go back to having a free-flowing river, you're going to see a boost in the region's economy," said Heather Weiner, a lawyer for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, an environmental law firm based in San Francisco. "People wouldn't be so fearful if there was a plan to help them out. The administration needs to look at the figures. Otherwise they're making a decision based on fear, not facts."
A spokeswoman for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Kim Escobar, said Thursday she was not prepared to comment on the administration's timetable for the study. Stelle said the fisheries service will hold public hearings on the various ideas being considered in February and March.
Once the agency issues its opinion, it will form the basis for whatever steps Marsh orders the federal government to take to save the fish. But legal observers are divided on whether the judge can order the breaching of the dams. The Army Corps of Engineers, which runs the dams, would have to get money for such a project from Congress, and most Republican leaders are opposed to it.
Because so many agencies have a stake in the matter, some proponents of breaching are urging the administration to hire an outside consultant to perform the mitigation study. A few such as Weiner don't expect the final product by May, but others want to see it by then so that the fisheries' recommendation has credibility.
"If I were in charge, I'd tell them to get on it," said Glen H. Spain, northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations in Eugene, Ore. "They're dragging their feet."
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