by John K. Wiley, Associated Press
Washington, Idaho officials say they want other options used to restore salmon runs
PASCO - Dam removal was not on the table Thursday when a congressional committee held a field hearing to come up with ways to restore salmon runs.
To comply with the federal Endangered Species Act, the National Marine Fisheries Service is expected later this year to release a "biological opinion" on how changes in river operations can help struggling stocks of salmon and steelhead recover.
In making its decision, the fisheries service is expected to use a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' environmental study of four lower Snake River hydropower dams it built and operates. Among the options studied: breaching the earthen portions of the dams to create a free-flowing river.
That option was not what the House Committee on Resources wanted to hear, however.
Republican Reps. Doc Hastings and George Nethercutt of Washington and Helen Chenoweth-Hage and Mike Simpson of Idaho made it clear they favor something besides breaching in the regional discussions on restoring fish runs.
During their field hearing in a community college theater, they called as witnesses scientists and federal officials who suggested that Caspian terns, ocean and atmospheric conditions, and a host of other factors are responsible for the declining fish runs.
"Today, we hope to turn back this issue and steer it back on the course which it belongs," Chenoweth-Hage said in opening remarks, noting that irrigators in her state are not using as much water as they could to help augment downstream flows.
"We have to look at all the factors, rather than just the issue of dam breaching," Hastings said, taking a swipe at the terns, birds that feast on juvenile fish making their way to the Pacific and ocean commercial fishing fleets.
Nethercutt, in whose district the four Snake River dams operate, said the hearing was convened to look at other options, such as local efforts to improve fish habitat and hatcheries.
"I don't believe dam removal is the silver-bullet answer, and I won't support a proposal that restores salmon on the backs of those who depend on the system: the agriculture, natural resources, small communities and residents of my Eastern Washington district," he said.
Any effort to breach the dams would require congressional authorization and funding.
Nethercutt and Hastings grilled Col. Eric Mogren, deputy commander of the corps' Northwest Division, on reports that the Clinton administration had pressured the agency to change its conclusion in the $20 million Snake River environmental study.
Mogren said the corps' Walla Walla office, which prepared the study, had recommended major system improvements and maximum barging of juvenile fish around dams. That "preferred alternative" was ordered stripped from the report by headquarters in October, Mogren said.
The corps did not choose breaching as an option because the science supporting such a recommendation was uncertain, but breaching may be required in the future, Mogren said.
Nethercutt, who has called for an inquiry into the corps' actions, said the Environmental Protection Agency is expected this week to send a letter condemning the water quality below the Snake River dams.
The EPA letter, while important, is among more than 90,000 responses the corps has received to its environmental study, Mogren said. The corps will respond to the EPA concerns in its final environmental statement, he said.
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, is chairman of the committee, but was unable to make the hearing, Chenoweth-Hage said.
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