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Administration Plan May Wait Too Long for Northwest Salmon

by Editorial Board
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 30, 2000

In a rare admission of fallibility, the Clinton administration says it doesn't yet know enough to propose that four lower Snake River dams should be breached to save wild salmon.

This is expensive ignorance. Huge sums have been spent with the oft-repeated promise that at the end of the day, this administration would know what to do to save these 12 imperiled runs -- including whether the dams must go.

The end of the day is here. But the Clinton administration will walk off the stage with precious little by way of more fish to show for eight years of fiddling around with them. Instead, this administration will hand a face-saving, fish-saving script to the next one.

The National Marine Fisheries Service Friday released its proposal for restoring the runs. The plan's implementation, which partly relies on Bonneville Power Administration funds, must be appoved by Congress.

It focuses on habitat improvements, hatchery reforms and, to a lesser degree, harvest reductions. That strategy might work -- if it's funded. But even if it is, it may doom the fish.

It includes a timetable that implies the dams could yet be breached if these approaches fail and breaching becomes absolutely necessary as a last resort to save the fish. Certainly it would be foolish to remove the dams if there's plausible evidence that runs can be restored without breaching.

But under this administration's timetable, the necessity of breaching would not become apparent for eight years -- about the time the next president leaves office.

How convenient for Al Gore.

How inconvenient for the fish.

While the National Marine Fisheries Service announcement of a 10-year delay in any breaching raises suspicions that this plan is an attempt to save something other than fish, the proposal does have common-sense elements. Pity they weren't put in place sooner.

The inherent risk in this strategy is that in eight years, runs that today are salvagable may no longer be viable. If so, it may be easier for breaching opponents to argue that so few fish are left that the tradeoffs in breaching -- chiefly the loss of barge transportation to Lewiston and hydropower from the dams -- aren't worth it.

NMFS regional administrator Will Stelle correctly argues that too much of the region's attention was diverted to the highly contentious debate about breaching.

The need for fish habitat, clean water and better hatchery practices have been all but forgotten, and breaching advocates have fastened on the dams as though their removal alone would save the salmon. Not so. For one thing, breaching wouldn't do much for fish in the upper reaches of the Columbia.

With breaching off the table, the emphasis moves once again to measures that may give heartburn to a more inclusive audience.

The pain of the remaining recovery requirements will be spread across the four-state Columbia/Snake river basin, whose residents will be asked to provide the water and habitat the fish need.

That is, if we really mean to save these salmon.

Editorial Board
Administration Plan May Wait Too Long for Northwest Salmon
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 30, 2000

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