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Commentaries and editorials

Unreleased Federal Plan
Calls for Dam Breaching

by Jonathan Brinckman
The Oregonian, November 18, 2000

The report seeking congressional approval to remove dams
ignited controversy in several agencies

The Northwest's most contested environmental issue seemed resolved when a White House official announced in July that the U.S. government would not order the removal of gigantic dams on the lower Snake River as a measure to save salmon.

It isn't.

George Frampton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, on July 27 said that instead of removing the dams, the federal government would pursue other salmon-saving steps, such as restoring streams and cutting fishing. Only if those steps failed, he said, would the government consider stronger actions -- including, again, a consideration of removing the dams.

A document obtained by The Oregonian shows that just two months before Frampton's announcement, the National Marine Fisheries Service -- the top federal salmon agency and final word on salmon policy --fashioned an opposite plan that called for dam breaching.

In that document, meant for distribution only among federal agencies, the fisheries service said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should immediately prepare to breach dams and in 2006 request congressional authorization for breaching. That request should only be derailed, the fisheries service said, if salmon were to measurably rebound.

The shift occurred in the final months of a five-year effort by the fisheries service to determine whether the dams should be breached, and it reveals deep uncertainty within the federal government over how to save Columbia Basin salmon -- and especially, whether to alter the Northwest's prized hydropower system to do so.

The uncertainty persists. Federal officials met this week in Washington, D.C., and although they said they expect the plan as announced by Frampton to stick, much remains unresolved. A plan is required because 12 stocks of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin, including four that pass the Snake River dams, are protected by the Endangered Species Act.

The presidential factor

The unresolved presidential race could be a factor.

Katie McGinty, Vice President Al Gore's campaign environmental adviser, declined to say Friday whether Gore, if elected, would reconsider breaching. "He will do what he said, which is stick with the science," she said.

A spokesman for U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., Bush's Oregon campaign manager, said Friday the Senator would not say whether Bush, if elected, would support the Clinton administration's plan, whatever it turns out to be. Bush formally opposes breaching dams.

Division within the government is revealed by the fisheries agency plan, dated May 18.

It was given only to other federal agencies, with strict instructions against distribution -- including states, tribes, conservationists, and industrial groups. For security, every page of each copy had a watermark indicating which federal agency had received it.

Officials in some federal agencies, including the Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service, were thrilled that the May 18 draft called for the corps to seek congressional authorization for dam breaching in 2006, unless new information showed that other steps called for in the plan had reversed the decline of salmon.

Draft draws opposition

The May 18 draft set two other deadlines: It required that by October 2002, the corps and the Bonneville Power Administration develop a plan to compensate the communities and industries that would be hurt if dams were breached. It required that by October 2003, the corps and power agency complete all engineering and design work for needed for breaching.

"I thought it was the way to go," said Gordon Haugen, who represented the U.S. Forest Service in the top-level meetings. "You get things lined up, give the region four or five years to see if it can save the fish without breaching dams and if not, get on with breaching dams."

But the corps, which owns and operates the dams, and the power agency, which sells the $270 million worth of electricity generated each year by the four dams, were upset.

The power agency, in comments dated June 20, deleted the section calling for breaching. Lorri Bodi, a senior policy adviser for the Bonneville Power Administration, said her agency thought the plan was flawed because it did not offer a rigorous way of gauging whether salmon returns were increasing.

"We thought that (the fisheries service) was missing the point by not having disciplined performance standards for showing results and for decision-making at specific timetables," Bodi said.

She added that the power agency's objections alone did not scuttle the plan.

"I can assure you that we are not in control of (the fisheries service) pen on this," Bodi said. "We gave them our view, but when the day comes, they go back and deliberate themselves."

Doug Arndt, director of the corps' fishery office, opposed the May 18 draft because he said new scientific studies by the fisheries service suggested that other measures -- such as restoring streams -- might do more to help salmon than breaching dams. Also, he said, he believed the draft did not offer a sound way to measure results.

More importantly, he said, the corps considered the plan legally flawed because it ordered that the corps ask Congress to authorize dam breaching as a remedy if other salmon recovery measures failed. But the corps, Arndt said, could not guarantee that Congress would approve breaching.

"We didn't like it, we thought it short-sighted," Arndt said. "I will tell you very bluntly, at one of our meetings we said we did not have the authority to breach."

Draft changes, director resigns

The fisheries service, struck by the fierce criticism, made wholesale changes to the draft. Central in making those changes was Will Stelle Jr., then the agency's Northwest regional director. Six weeks after Frampton announced the federal plan on Sept. 8, Stelle resigned from the fisheries service to practice law in Seattle.

The first draft came as dam-breaching became a presidential campaign issue. While Stelle said there was much speculation over how a recommendation on breaching would affect the presidential race, he said neither politics nor pressure from the corps or the power agency led the fisheries service to revise his agency's plan.

"No deal was struck. It didn't reflect any kind of rejiggering of an earlier draft for political purposes," Stelle said this week. Instead, he said, the fisheries service modified its plan after realizing that it might not be legal to issue a plan in 2000 that could require breaching in 2006.

Stelle said the agency could not be sure that science in 2006 would support breaching and that the Endangered Species Act requires that actions ordered by the fisheries service be justified by current science.

"I do recall very specifically some perfectly legitimate discussions about the ability to hardwire future decisions," Stelle said. "The conclusion was you cannot absolutely hardwire future decisions under the Endangered Species Act."

Stelle said the plan's overall architecture did not fundamentally change. While a specific order for breaching was removed, he said, the plan still requires that salmon returns be gauged. If salmon numbers do not rebound, he said, the plan requires that stricter measures be considered -- possibly including breaching.

Conservationists and tribes, who consider breaching essential if Snake River salmon are to be saved, say the original plan was very different and far better.

Scott Bosse, a conservation scientist for Idaho Rivers United, said the unreleased draft proves that fisheries service scientists do not consider the current plan the best way to save Snake River salmon. Bosse said he has not seen the unreleased draft.

"The ghost draft may well be the smoking gun that proves that (the fisheries service) abandoned the best available science," Bosse said.

Several conservation organizations, including Save our Wild Salmon and American Rivers, ran full page ads this week in seven Northwest papers, including The Oregonian, calling for a recovery plan that prepares to remove the four Snake River dams in five years unless salmon are recovering.

"This issue is still in play," said Chris Zimmer, a spokesman for Save Our Wild Salmon. "The president can certainly step in and do the right thing for fish."

Jonathan Brinckman
Unreleased Federal Plan Calls for Dam Breaching
The Oregonian, November 18, 2000

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