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Corps, NMFS Stall in Wake of Report

by Mike Lee
Tri-City Herald, December 18, 1999

The Army Corps of Engineers boiled five years of work into a few words Friday, saying breaching the lower four Snake River dams would create "a moderate reduction in extinction risks for fall chinook and steelhead."

Three other options studied would leave the dams in place and are predicted to provide a "slight" risk reduction, according to the summary of a 4,000-page document that cost more than $20 million to write.

Key questions remain: How much is the Northwest and Congress willing to pay for an upgrade from "slight" to "moderate?"

How solid are the assumptions behind predictions? How many more delays can endangered fish survive? And will the science ever be any more clear than it is today?

Greg Graham, leader of the Corps' massive study effort, had a one-word summary of the science behind dam-breaching theories: "unclear."

Both pro- and anti-breaching camps were able to draw ammunition from the federal papers presented Friday in Portland.

In addition to the Corps' environmental review of the Snake dams, the National Marine Fisheries Service released an updated and renamed "All-H" document, covering hydropower, hatcheries, habitat and harvest.

While the Corps and NMFS talked about uncertain science, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as expected, said breaching the four dams between Pasco and Lewiston is the best option for the overall health of fish and wildlife in the lower Snake region.

"The bottom-line biological conclusion is really a no-brainer and that is that for native fish and wildlife, a free-flowing river is better than a dammed river," said Anne Badgely, regional director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. "That should not be a surprise to anyone."

The Corps and NMFS are waiting for "regional dialogue" before recommending what should be done to the dams. It will be well into the summer before the Corps' final decision goes to Congress, which controls the federal purse strings and would have to authorize dam breaching.

"I know that many would like our decision now, one way or another," said Brig. Gen. Carl Strock, commander of the Corps' Northwest Division. "But the fact is that the science doesn't point clearly to any one solution, while the biological, economic and social implications are huge."

Opinion is divided on whether waiting to take a side was a good idea, with river users demanding answers and the pro(anti)-breaching camp generally applauding the move because it believed the Corps was ready to suggest the status quo as the best alternative.

Will Stelle, NMFS regional administrator, said the real question is not the relatively simple one that the Fish and Wildlife Service answered.

Instead, federal officials are trying to figure out how to recover multiple depleted salmon and steelhead stocks across the Columbia Basin. The agencies also are trying to evaluate the economic and social effects of dam breaching.

"The best thing for fish is probably to stop all irrigation, to terminate any kind of development in riparian areas and ... to take out the dams and ... move east," Stelle said. "But that is not the question that we are really trying to struggle with."

One struggle Friday was for federal agencies to manage the numerous fish documents that were supposed to be ready for public review.

Key parts of the Corps' Snake paper dealing with fish were not posted on its Internet site during business hours. And release of the biological assessment - a precursor to the all-important biological opinion that will run the river system in coming years - was put off until next week.

"There are some delays ... just because there is so much work," said Crystal Ball, spokeswoman for the Bonneville Power Administration.

To find the Corps environmental review of the Snake River, go to on the Internet and click on the "Draft Feasibility Report and Environmental Impact Statement."

Several public hearings are scheduled in February and March, including one in Pasco. Details were not available Friday.

The Corps' paper covers four options on the lower Snake River - the status quo, increased barging of young fish, overhauling the dams to make them more fish-friendly or tearing out the dams.

NMFS' science team said it's unlikely any one of the alternatives alone - including dam breaching - could save spring chinook. NMFS also said fall chinook could be returned to "acceptable" levels by harvest restrictions, something tribes vow to fight in court.

And the fish service said young fish barged to the ocean may be doing better than earlier studies showed.

But all eyes are on dam breaching, which several studies have shown to have a better chance of avoiding fish extinction.

However, dam breaching will have other wide-reaching effects. Resident fish such as crappie, bluegills and largemouth bass wouldn't fare as well in a free-flowing river, the corps report said.

It also said to expect Snake salmon stocks to delay migration by two or three years because of all the sediment flowing down the undammed river. The corps summary was not clear about how that would affect the long-term spawning cycle.

According to the Corps, air emissions from new natural gas power plants expected to be built to make up for lost power at breached dams would increase by less than 1 percent total emissions in the West.

After a 10-year spike in jobs to tear down the dams, dam breaching is expected to cost about 700 long-term jobs in the lower Snake region, the Corps said.

Overall, the 50-page Corps summary was similar to earlier drafts. It pegged the annual cost of dam removal at $246 million - about half of what it would cost to buy water from southern Idaho irrigators, another fish recovery option. That water would be used to speed flows in the lower Snake and make it run more like a natural river.

Stelle said more information was needed about the costs of recovery measures that leave the dams in place.

Mike Lee
Corps, NMFS Stall in Wake of Report
Tri-City Herald, December 18, 1999

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