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Groups Urge NWPPC to Take Breaching Stance

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - September 1, 2000

Conservation groups and individuals on Wednesday asked the Northwest Power Planning Council to take up the pro-dam breaching cause as part of its amended Columbia Basin fish and wildlife program.

Breaching of four Lower Snake River hydroelectric dams "is the most viable solution" to give impetus to salmon recovery efforts, Karie Korporaal said during a public hearing on the Council's draft amendment to its fish and wildlife program. "You need to take a stand."

Six people offered testimony during the Portland session, the first in a series of hearings scheduled over the next three weeks. Five said the NWPPC should not ignore dam breaching as a potential tool for reviving struggling salmon populations. A sixth, Public Power Council assistant manager Rob Walton, said the Council should lead an effort to bring consensus on conflicting harvest and artificial production strategies.

The Council, in the draft document released in mid-August, offered as a planning assumption that "in the near term, the breaching of the four federal dams on the lower Snake River will not occur." The draft language leaves open the option of revisiting the issue if the status of the dams has changed.

Both Korporaal and Aime Wexler of Save Our Wild Salmon said that the power generation that would be lost as a result of dam breaching could be replaced. Snake River salmon stocks on the brink of extinction, they said, are irreplaceable.

Both said that the Council was in the position to influence such a decision with a pro-breaching stance and through the encouragement of renewable energy source development and conservation. Wexler said that because the hydrosystem has produced low-cost energy, conservation and renewables have not been pursued in the region with enough vigor.

The Council has the dual charge, via the Northwest Power Act, with mitigating, protecting and enhancing fish and wildlife affected by the development of the hydrosystem and with ensuring the reliability of the region's power supply system.

"Something needs to be done to save the fish," said Wexler, who added that the preponderance of scientific thought points to breaching as the single most effective measure to reverse Snake River stocks' declines.

She summed up the draft program amendment as a "plan for more planning" that follows too closely in the footsteps of a recently released National Marine Fisheries Service hydrosystem biological opinion. The BiOp outlines a variety of hydrosystem operational and fish survival improvement measures, as well as off-site habitat, harvest and hatchery improvements, intended to ward off salmon extinctions and recover dwindling populations. It suggests that breaching be brought back into consideration if those measures fail.

"The fish need action," Wexler insisted.

NWPPC Chairman Larry Cassidy of Washington, said that the draft program's non-breaching assumption reflected reality. The draft program management strategy is intended to cover a five-year term or less. And even if breaching was OK'd now, the planning for implementation would take years to complete (the Corps of Engineers has estimated 7-8 years).

Such a move would require congressional authorization. But, Cassidy said, so far he was aware of only one member of the House of Representatives, and no senators, who have said publicly that they favored dam breaching.

Oregon Council member John Brogoitti quizzed both Korporaal and Wexler about how they intended to replace the power generation that would be lost if dams were breached. He said that the region already faced potential energy shortfalls with the existing system in place.

"There are some reality checks that we have to take into account" in balancing fish mitigation and regional energy needs, Brogoitti said.

Council Vice Chairman Eric Bloch of Oregn defended the right of the pro-breaching witnesses to call for Council action, saying that the Council has the wherewithal and duty to pursue avenues for bolstering power system reliability and changes in human activities that are more compatible to fish survival.

Bloch stressed that he was not advocating dam breaching but said the Council "should plan for what we do if we're not successful" with other strategies.

He defended the draft amendment as a plan for action. The Council has taken aim at establishing a "substantial" trust fund or other mechanism to facilitate the purchase of crucial habitat and water rights, Bloch said. Providing habitat protections and improving tributary in-stream flows have the potential to bring quick biological benefits for fish.

The draft amendment also seeks to establish a scheme for expediting fish and wildlife projects deemed eligible for early action.

"We realize there is an urgency," Bloch said. But the amendment process also represents a major shift in the approach to longer-term fish and wildlife management.

"I feel there is benefit in taking the time to adjust the way we are going about the basinwide effort to improve salmon survival," Bloch said.

Columbia Group Sierra Club Chairman Jeff Fryer commended the Council for the draft's habitat-based approach but also cited shortcomings in the plan's hydrosystem elements. The Snake River basin, for example, contains considerable quality habitat.

"Habitat improvements are not going to increase numbers of salmon in these areas, only major improvements in the hydrosystem survival are going to provide these increases," Fryer said. "And the only method we see that will provide the necessary increase in hydrosystem survival is dam breaching." He too called the plan long on theory and short on action.

The Council plan encourages federal hydrosystem operations that provide "conditions in the hydrosystem for adult and juvenile fish that most closely approximate natural physical and biological systems," Fryer said. "How do barging, collector screens, and bypass systems approximate natural systems? Each of these systems, while possibly helping some species; for example, perhaps steelhead and yearling chinook, hurts others such as lamprey, sockeye, and subyearling chinook salmon."

"The draft NPPC program continues our long tradition in this region of studying the plight of the salmon without doing anything substantial about it," Fryer said. "Unfortunately, it is far easier to propose a program funding more studies and providing more money for technological fixes, than to propose a program that makes the tough choices necessary to recover the salmon."

Operations at federal hydrosystem facilities are controlled by federal agencies in consultation with tribes, states and others.

Walton called on the Council to strengthen wording in the document that might force conciliation of regional harvest and artificial production dilemmas.

The region, and the Council in its 18 years of existence, "still haven't agreed on what the word fish means," Walton said. He pointed out that record numbers of spring chinook salmon returned to the Columbia-Snake river system this year but harvests were at near-record lows because of regulation intended to protect wild, listed portions of those runs. State, federal and tribal fishery officials are often at odds about how and when artificial production should be used, as well as the use of fish marking and other selective fishing methods that might reduce impacts on wild fish populations.

Walton called the draft amendment "the closest I've seen to calling some of these questions." While claiming no authority over harvest management, the Council draft says harvest regimes will be taken into account in the assessment of project proposals.

"A hatchery that rears fish solely for harvest is of little benefit if the majority of those fish go uncaught because potential harvest is restricted by the presence of another, much weaker stock," reads the draft. The Council program has during the term of a 1996-2001 memorandum of agreement recommended how $127 million in fish and wildlife mitigation funds should be spent annually.

The first phase of the amendment process focuses on establishing basinwide goals, objectives and strategies that will guide development of action plans for each of the 53 major subbasins in the basin. The Council will consider comments in drafting a final phase 1 amendment for adoption in the fall.

Public comments will be accepted through Sept. 22.
The public hearing schedule continues next week with a 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 5, session at the Water Resources Education Center, 4600 SE Columbia Way, in Vancouver, Wash.,
and a 5 p.m. meeting Wednesday, Sept. 6 at the Duncan Law Seafood Consumer Center, 2021 Marine Drive, Astoria,Ore.

A limited number of printed copies of the draft document will be available by calling the Council office at 503-222-5161 or 800-452-5161.

The draft document and appendices are posted on the NWPPC web site,

by Barry Espenson
Groups Urge NWPPC to Take Breaching Stance
Columbia Basin Bulletin, September 1, 2000

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