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Tri-Cities Says 'No' to Breaching

by Mike Lee
Tri-City Herald, February 18, 2000

Score one for the dams.

But don't overlook a strong comeback by the fish.

More than 1,000 Mid-Columbians rallied Thursday in Pasco to tell high-ranking government officials what should be done with the four Lower Snake River dams.

The majority vehemently defended the region's infrastructure, unleashing years of fears about region's economic health should the dams be torn down in an attempt to restore endangered fish runs.

"Our jobs and our way of life are at stake," said Fred Bennett, Port of Walla Walla commissioner. Dam breaching, he added to the cheers of the crowd, "is extreme and it is risky."

Salmon advocates, however, made themselves clear in the evening hearing, which drew about 300 people. "I need just need three words," said Heidi Brunkal of Richland. "Extinction is forever."

For most of the day, the mood was civil, comments passionate and direct insults minimal. Even tribal speakers - adamant about a return to a natural lower Snake River - largely were afforded silence during their speeches. Between the afternoon and evening hearings, more than 200 people signed up to speak.

"We've had some lively discussion," said Chuck Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "All in all, it's been a textbook example of the First Amendment in action."

Dean Strawn, a Kennewick businessman and pro-dam organizer, was struck by the number of speakers who defended dams as a critical piece of the Northwest but also offered suggestions about how to recover fish runs.

"We're not hearing people talk about just don't breach the dams and to heck with the salmon," he said. "They are looking for solutions."

That point resonated with federal officials who conducted the hearing.

"The question in front of us here isn't just about the Snake River dams," said Army Corps of Engineers Col. Eric Mogren. "It's much bigger than that."

Northwest public hearings, however, are perceived by many as dams vs. salmon. That attitude is a problem for bureaucrats using the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act to restore Columbia Basin fish runs.

Their frustration with the oversimplification of the issue showed through in a Herald editorial board before the public hearing.

"If we are going to be successful, we must be comprehensive," said Will Stelle, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "There is a bigger equation."

NMFS has drafted an attempt to cover all aspects of salmon recovery - habitat, hydropower, hatcheries and harvest - to help the region define its salmon recovery plan.

The so-called All-H paper essentially states there are no easy answers - that if the dams stay in, other potentially severe economic choices must be made. And the focus of many recovery efforts outside the dams and federal land will end up forcing habitat improvements on private property.

With the possible exception of dam removal, property restrictions are about the last thing Mid-Columbians want to see, putting the region's farmers in a quandary.

Nonetheless, Mogren said, Northwest residents now are starting to really wrestle with the tough issues and getting beyond the sound bites. "There are an awful lot of people out there trying to make up their minds," he said. "I think the questions are getting better."

But the federal bureaucrats aren't close to being convinced that the states or the public really is invested in salmon recovery and cleaning up nonpoint water pollution. "There is not a large enough commitment yet," said Chuck Clarke, regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. And "there's not near enough money."

Whatever the cause, Snake River fish are in bad shape. Snake steelhead face a 90 percent long-term risk of extinction, and spring chinook face a 10 percent chance of extinction in the next decade.

Since the lower Snake dams were built in the 1960s and 1970s, they've been upgraded to improve salmon passage. For Bob Wilson of Richland, however, the changes aren't enough. "The dams were fish-killing boondoggles when they were built, and they are fish-killing boondoggles now," he said. "A truly God-fearing people would rush to tear out these dams."

Not so, said Tim Snead, Grant County commissioner, who tried to impress officials with the environmental benefits of the hydropower system. "It would be totally irresponsible to destroy dams that are a clean renewable resource industry," he said.

Many speakers said the government should study the issue longer. "We are a nation that put men on the moon, and I cannot believe that we cannot devise ways and means to restore our salmon runs," said George Hash, Umatilla mayor.

Others blamed poor ocean conditions for killing fish and suggested conditions are turning around. Some ranted against Caspian terns eating millions of young fish near the river's mouth. And still more questioned the wisdom of continued tribal and commercial fishing when the fish are in such bad shape.

"Perhaps breaching dams is a viable last step to saving salmon but not a sensible first step," said Leo Hill of Walla Walla. "Breaching the Snake River dams is too drastic of a move to take before addressing the other issues that any reasonable person can see would have a more immediate impact on salmon."

The strong showing at the Pasco hearing left little doubt that the people who most directly benefit from the dams are willing to be counted. Pasco is one of the few Northwest hearing sites where the pro-dam contingent is expected to outweigh breach advocates.

Many who spoke wore yellow ribbons, signifying solidarity for the dams. "The Corps has built a good system," said Les Wigen, Whitman County commissioner. "This is our I-5 corridor to the world. Leave it alone."

Rella Reimann, president of T&R Farms east of Pasco - one of the farm companies that would be dewatered by breaching - read a letter from Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash. "I can state definitively that no federal proposal to remove Snake or Columbia river dams will see the light of day in Congress - at least while this senator is representing you."

Congress would have to authorize and pay for dam removal.

Talk in the hallways was about the lower Snake River dams being just the first step of an environmental movement that threatens all dams and all industries that use the land and water. "Some day, this country will regret the damage it has done to property rights in the name of environmental extremism," Tom Clyde, a Connell dairyman, told the officials to vigorous applause.

The message seemed to get across. "There's a lot at stake here," Mogren said. "At some point, the national media spotlight is going to be over, and we'll have to live with these decisions and live with each other."

Tribal members - mostly from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation - stressed a desire to work with other Mid-Columbians.

"We want the dams removed," said Armand Minthorn, Umatilla tribal leader. But, he added, "I have to work with you folks, and if I am going to work with you in a good manner, we need to be treated as equals."

The Corps plans to have a recommendation to Congress in late summer. "We know we will get sued no matter what we do," Stelle said.

Mike Lee
Tri-Cities Says 'No' to Breaching
Tri-City Herald, February 18, 2000

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