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New U.S. Report Lauds Dam Breaching

by Robert McClure
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 17, 1999

Incapacitating four southeast Washington dams would help a wide range of animals and fish, not just the endangered salmon that are prompting authorities to consider the controversial idea, says a report due out today from federal biologists.

Meanwhile, another arm of the federal government is expected to give approval today to scooping some 23 million cubic yards of sand, silt and gravel from the Columbia River -- a move that environmentalists say will harm the very same endangered fish.

Today, several federal agencies are scheduled to release thousands of pages of documents about how to help restore the once-prolific salmon runs of the Columbia River and its tributary, the Snake.

Buried in the 22 appendices to the main document is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report. It says that of four options examined, the environment would benefit most from punching holes in the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Lower Granite and Little Goose dams on the Snake and letting the river flow naturally. The report does not represent the agency's final recommendation.

"This . . . has the greatest benefit for all fish and wildlife," said Bill Shake, assistant regional director of the service. "Leaving it as a reservoir system does not provide those native species of fish and other aquatic organisms as much benefit as a natural riverine system."

In a natural river, plants would grow along the bank and shelter frogs, salamanders and other creatures eaten by fish, he said. The shallower, cooler river would be less hospitable to squawfish, which breed prolifically in the dammed river and eat young salmon.

Overall, returning the river to a more natural state would benefit a wide range of species -- from fish fry in the water to deer on shore, Shake said.

The finding, while not an endorsement or order, lends weight to arguments for breaching the dams by carving holes through their earthen flanks, leaving the supporting concrete abutments intact.

The report marks "a significant event," said Scott Faber, director of public policy for American Rivers, an environmental group pushing for dam breaching.

"The science is leading us further and further toward dam removal," Faber said. "Now we need to find a way to replace the benefits the dams provide to us."

But businesses that are dependent on the dams -- farmers, aluminum companies, barge operators and others -- don't see it that way.

Agricultural interests and residents along a 140-mile stretch of the Snake fear that if the dams are breached, making the river too shallow for barges that carry wheat and other commodities to market at inexpensive rates, their already reeling economy would take a nose dive.

"Someone's got to have the leadership to say we've given dam breaching the old college try, we can't find the benefits, and we're done with it," said Bruce Lovelin, director of the Columbia River Alliance, which represents dam-dependent businesses. "We don't even have a comprehensive (salmon-recovery) plan in place and we can't get past bizarre notions such as dam breaching."

Corps estimates of the costs -- lost benefits of electricity generation, irrigation and navigation, plus the price of opening the dams -- is at least $330 million a year. Today's reports will also detail economic benefits of the project, which proponents call substantial.

Meanwhile, the National Marine Fisheries Service today is expected to conditionally approve dredging the Columbia River 8 feet deeper from the river's mouth 106 miles east to Portland.

The deeper channel would allow bigger ships to reach ports on the lower Columbia.

Although the project is billed as a 3-foot deepening, authorities plan to dig and blast 5 feet deeper than that -- "advanced maintenance dredging" to keep the channel open for years to come, said Susan Crisfield, an opponent who works with Portland-based Northwest Environmental Advocates.

Opponents tick off a long list of reasons for not dredging the Columbia, including the re-suspension of potentially toxic sediments that would harm endangered salmon, among other species.

They are also angry that the Army Corps of Engineers would blast and dig during the annual salmon runs.

Crabbers in the Ilwaco area also are opposed, and the Port of Astoria doesn't back the project because some of the dredged material would be dumped across 14 square miles of ocean fishing grounds near the mouth of the river, Crisfield said.

"This project betrays the public trust by assaulting our river and ocean, slapping our already ragged economy in the face," said Peter Huhtala, director of the Columbia Deepening Opposition Group, in remarks prepared for a hearing last night.

The Fisheries Service acknowledges there has been a sharp decline in the environmental quality of the once-productive area where salt and fresh water mix at the mouth of the Columbia.

Thirteen populations of salmon and steelhead protected under the Endangered Species Act pass through there each year.

The Service also says dredging would do more environmental damage, but that the Corps of Engineers would be required to offset it.

Over the next decade, the Corps would have to restore about 5,000 acres of shallow-water areas that could provide food and shelter for young salmon as they make their long, dangerous journey down river to the ocean.

The agency also would breach dikes on tributary streams to open them up for salmon breeding and would closely monitor the dredging's effect on salmon and steelhead.

Opponents, including Indian tribes, environmentalists and fishermen, are angry that the Corps is moving so quickly.

Congress authorized the $196 million project, saying the federal government would pay two-thirds of the cost.

But unless the Corps can get other federal agencies to sign off by Dec. 31, the project would be delayed a year.

It still would require approval by Oregon and Washington state.

Robert McClure
New U.S. Report Lauds Dam Breaching
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 17, 1999

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