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Feds, Tribes Strike Deal on Dams, Fish

by Mary Hopkin
Tri-City Herald, April 8, 2008

Federal officials and four Northwest tribes reached a settlement Monday that keeps the region's hydroelectric dams operating for at least another decade and earmarks $900 million for improving fish habitat.

The agreements are the result of two years of negotiations between federal agencies, including the Bonneville Power Administration, Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, and regional tribes including the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation, and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

Under the agreement, the government gets a promise from the tribes to keep the issue out of the courts, including ending current lawsuits and preventing others for at least 10 years.

In exchange, the tribes will get approximately $900 million, the majority funded by the BPA, earmarked to help salmon through actions such as hatchery improvements and stream restoration. BPA ultimately would pass the costs on to Northwest ratepayers.

"This is the best thing to happen to Columbia River salmon in a long time and it's what the fish have been waiting for," said Fidelia Andy, who heads the Fish and Wildlife Committee of the Yakama National Tribal Council and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

The agreement lists more than 200 specific projects to improve habitat not only for endangered salmon species, but also for unlisted fish species.

The agreements build on biological opinions for listed salmon and steelhead and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's fish and wildlife program.

Steve Wright, BPA administrator, said the agreements resolve, at least for the parties involved, the Endangered Species Act litigation pending before Judge James Redden of the U.S. District Court of Oregon.

Over the past 15 years, court rulings have disqualified three of the last four federal dam operation plans because they failed to protect and recover Columbia River system endangered salmon. The last salmon and dam plan, which was brought before Redden in 2006, was declared inadequate.

Court orders won by tribal, conservation and fishing groups also have required dam operators to release additional water at certain times of the year to help juvenile salmon move to the sea.

Reaction to the agreement was swift, with some environmentalists highly critical of it.

"This deal defies decades of salmon science that say salmon recovery in the Columbia and Snake River Basin is not possible with habitat and hatchery programs alone," said Bill Shake, a former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assistant regional director, in a statement from Earthjustice.

He added, "While increased spill and flow and Snake River dam removal are not silver bullets, they are a necessary part of a larger plan. This deal suggests that salmon can recover without that action, which goes against everything the science tells us."

Tim Weaver, an attorney for the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, said he was disappointed and insulted by the reaction.

"I don't think they have read the agreement or understand it. It's based on good science and doing good work and things that are going to be good for the fish," Weaver said in a conference call. "Frankly, agreeing not to litigate for 10 years cuts me out of quite a bit of work. And although it's been fun beating Bonneville over the head in the courtroom, it hasn't produced more fish."

Locally, the 10-year work plan includes $16.7 million for John Day watershed restoration work, $10 million for in-stream flow restoration projects including buying water rights and developing and replacing water sources for agricultural users along Umatilla and Walla Walla tributaries, $7.3 million for Walla Walla juvenile and adult passage improvements, $2.5 million for South Fork Touchet watershed protection and restoration, and $10 million for stream protection work in Blue Mountain tributaries.

Andy said the agreement is much more specific than previous plans and includes contingencies for unforeseen problems and if performance measures aren't met.

Wright said about $850 million of the earmarked money will come from the BPA and, ultimately, its customers. He said he didn't have estimates of the impact the agreement will have on BPA's wholesale rates.

But, Wright said, "Rates will be higher than they would have been without the agreement."

Related Pages:
Survival of Snake River Salmon & Steelhead data compiled by, July 2004

Mary Hopkin, staff writer
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Feds, Tribes Strike Deal on Dams, Fish
Tri-City Herald, April 8, 2008

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