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Clinton Urged to Weigh NW Dam Removal

by Michael Paulson, Washington Correspondent
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - August 5, 1999

House members say the future of salmon at stake

WASHINGTON -- Saying that the future of Pacific salmon is a national issue, 107 members of the House of Representatives are urging President Clinton to consider removal of four dams on the lower Snake River.

Their letter to Clinton could mark a turning point in the debate over dam removal in the Pacific Northwest. Dam removal as a tool to restore endangered salmon runs has broad support in the environmental community, but until now environmentalists have been handicapped by a total lack of political support for their cause.

Map of Lower Snake dams

The House members who signed the letter, including six from Washington and Oregon, are not advocating dam removal, but are insisting that dam removal remain an option as the nation debates how to restore Pacific salmon runs. The letter contradicts a resolution offered by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., that calls on Clinton not even to consider dam removal as a possibility because of the economic benefits generated by the dams.

A White House spokesman called the letter "helpful." The Clinton administration is expected this fall to release two important documents on dam removal: an Army Corps of Engineers study recommending whether to breach the lower Snake River dams, and a National Marine Fisheries paper on actions needed to restore salmon runs in the Columbia River basin.

"We believe the process we now have under way is directed at achieving just what the letter calls for -- a decision based on a thorough analysis of all the relevant science and economics," said Elliot Diringer, communications director at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. "Our objective is a lasting solution built on sound science and regional consensus."

In the letter, 95 Democrats and 12 Republicans argue that the future of the dams is of national importance. Northwest signatories include Reps. Jay Inslee and Jim McDermott, D-Wash., and Reps. Earl Blumenauer, Peter DeFazio, Darlene Hooley and David Wu, D-Ore.

"We believe that Snake River salmon, and steelhead, are an economic and environmental asset whose preservation is a national responsibility," the letter says.

The letter's prime Republican author, Rep. Thomas Petri, R-Wis., said his constituents deserve a voice in the debate.

"Environmental issues affect all of us in the country, especially if there's a cost associated with dealing with it," Petri said in an interview. "We're simply asking that nothing be ruled out, and that a thorough and professional review of the different options be done."

Environmental groups have long urged that salmon preservation be viewed as a national issue. As long as the debate is merely regional, those who believe dam removal is an essential step for salmon preservation seem unable to overcome the opposition of those who benefit economically from the dams.

Politicians in Washington state, citing the benefits of the dammed river for irrigation, transportation, hydropower and flood control, are generally opposed to dam removal. Gov. Gary Locke and Sen. Patty Murray, both Democrats with strong environmental records, have joined Republicans in opposing dam removal.

Hastings and Rep. George Nethercutt, both Eastern Washington Republicans, are pushing a congressional resolution saying that "plans for the recovery of federally protected fish species in the Columbia and Snake River System should not rely on dam removal schemes." The resolution, which is not binding, has been approved by the House Resources Committee but has not been considered by the full House.

Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., also has supported two provisions in an Energy appropriations bill that would limit the administration's salmon restoration options. One would prevent the Bonneville Power Administration from amassing what Gorton describes as a slush fund to pay for dam removal; another would bar the administration from continuing to study drawdown of the John Day or McNary dams on the Columbia River.

Gorton last week delivered a Senate speech opposing dam removal, citing several federal studies that he said demonstrate that dam removal would be of only modest benefit and great harm.

"What do we get by removing the four Snake River dams?" he asked. "Shattered lives, displaced families and communities who will have seen their livelihoods destroyed, generations of family farmers penniless, industries forced to drive up consumer costs, air pollution, a desert that once bloomed with agriculture products goes dry, a far less competitive Northwest economy and a Northwest scrambling to repay a BPA treasury debt with less revenue, and scrambling to buy or build higher cost polluting sources of power."

The congressional letter was spurred by the efforts of a variety of organizations advocating dam removal, including American Rivers, the National Wildlife Federation, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, Save Our Wild Salmon and the Sierra Club. The groups claim support from 360 organizations and prominent individuals, including, most recently, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the president of the environmental group Water Keeper Alliance.

"This establishes a new political center of gravity on the issue, signaling that it's both a national and a regional issue and that Congress cares about the problem and has an open mind about the solution," said Ralph DeGennaro, executive director of Taxpayers for Common Sense, an organization supporting dam removal.

"It's a national issue because every taxpayer in America subsidizes the (river) navigation, and will be liable for compensation payments of billions or tens of billions of dollars to Native Americans when the salmon go extinct," DeGenarro said. "Furthermore, the salmon are a national economic and environmental asset, and this letter shows the rest of America is waking up to its stake in this issue."

Opponents of dam removal did not welcome news of the letter.

"The issue isn't dam removal, it's how we are going to save salmon," said Murray. "If we focus on doing everything we can (to save salmon), from the local level to protecting the Hanford Reach, we could preclude a very difficult decision in the Pacific Northwest."

Hastings did not return a call seeking comment, but Nethercutt was so upset by the letter that he immediately dashed off a response to the 12 Republican signatories and started pigeonholing them in the corridors of the Capitol.

"This letter is couched in terms of preserving all options, but in fact the very people who are behind the letter have a sole mission of removing dams," Nethercutt said in an interview.

He pointed out that Taxpayers for Common Sense ran a classified ad in Roll Call this week seeking a "campaign director . . . to run a campaign to remove Northwest dams."

"These groups have avoided reasonable salmon restoration efforts," Nethercutt charged.

"This letter is a pretext for wanting to remove the dams, as opposed to a sincere effort to solve the salmon recovery problem."

Michael Paulson
Clinton Urged to Weigh NW Dam Removal
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - August 5, 1999

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