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Agencies Tout Progress on Fish Recovery Goals

by Dan Hansen, staff writer
The Spokesman Review, May 16, 2002

But Trout Unlimited official calls announcement `crassly political'

Less than three months after critics released a detailed study giving the government failing marks for salmon recovery, three federal agencies say their efforts are "on track" to avoid breaching dams.

"Under less than optimal conditions, a lot was accomplished in 2001," said Steve Wright, administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration.

"We are proud of the progress made in (2001) and are confident that 2002 will build on these initial efforts," said Ken Redde, deputy regional director of the federal Bureau of Reclamation.

"Crassly political," is how Jeff Curtis of Trout Unlimited describes such comments.

Under a salmon recovery plan adopted in 2000, the National Marine Fisheries Service said it was not necessary to breach four Eastern Washington dams on the Snake River. But the effort would be difficult and costly, NMFS officials warned.

The plan established 199 measures to be adopted within 10 years. NMFS called for periodic reviews to determine whether the government is achieving those goals; if not, dam breaching must be reconsidered.

The first such review is next year. Others follow in 2005 and 2008.

The government has not come close to spending the $918 million a year that NMFS said was needed to save salmon without breaching dams. The Bush administration proposes spending about $518 million in 2003, compared with $438 million this year -- a significant increase from the Clinton years.

The plan calls for huge spills of water over federal dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers to help migrating salmon. But federal agencies nearly eliminated such spills during last summer's drought, so every drop could be used to generate electricity.

Not to worry, officials for the BPA, Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said in a joint press release issued Wednesday.

They noted improvements at the dams, stepped-up efforts to leave as much water as possible in streams during salmon migrations and studies on ways to change hatchery practices that harm wild fish.

The number of adult salmon returning from the ocean to Columbia River tributaries last year was a record since the government started keeping track - long after runs started declining. Left unsaid in the press release was that 90 percent of those fish started life in hatcheries, not in the wild.

Brig. Gen. David Fastabend, the corps' Northwest commander, attributed the returns to good river conditions when the juvenile fish were migrating to the ocean in the late 1990s and good ocean conditions while they were coming of age in the Pacific -- factors beyond human control. But the fish also benefited from changes at the dams, Fastabend contends.

"We haven't seen such large numbers of returning Snake River fish since 1938, when Bonneville Dam was built," Fastabend said.

Environmentalists and many scientists warn that runs will plummet when weather and ocean conditions go sour again.

"They are largely riding on the coattails of Mother Nature in touting the success of the first year" of the salmon recovery plan, said Rob Masonis of American Rivers.

The Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition in February issued its "Salmon Plan Report Card," giving federal agencies failing grades for work completed so far. The group charged that the government had done no work toward meeting three-quarters of the recovery goals.

Related Sites:
2001 Progress Report

Dan Hansen, Staff writer Agencies Tout Progress on Fish Recovery Goals
Spokesman Review, May 16, 2002

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