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Salmon Plan Worth a Dam

by Editors
Seattle Times - July 30, 2000

The federal government's long, expensive list of ways to protect and restore endangered salmon has one overriding appeal: It exists in the realm of the workable and doable.

Dam removal on the Snake River is not going to happen, so everyone had best heed the draft Basinwide Salmon Recovery Strategy released Thursday by a fishy stew of federal agencies. The plan is big, clunky and costly, but it might work.

What is proposed is a spectrum of remedial efforts on the Snake and Columbia rivers with better monitoring of fish populations and evaluations of the programs.

Even Sen. Slade Gorton narrowly concedes that fish would be better off without the dams. But dams are woven into the economy of the region, through power generation, irrigation and transport. Dam removal is a fight that will not be won anytime soon. Political and financial energies on both sides are best invested in holding the federal government accountable for improving fish habitat throughout the Columbia-Snake River basin, reforming hatcheries to preserve wild salmon stocks, making hydro operations less lethal for fish, and capping harvests at current levels.

None of the non-dam-removal fixes is an easy sell, as noted by George Frampton, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and Will Stelle, regional administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service. Neither had good answers for how much the plan would cost or how it would be paid for.

A sizeable chunk of money is built into the Bonneville Power Administration's pending rate case. BPA's estimated annual salmon costs soar as high as $700 million. Congress would presumably make up what the ratepayers do not provide. What the region has to accept is that with the dams in place, and salmon under the guardianship of the courts, more will have to be done.

Nine federal agencies put together a plan whose details are now circulating. Numbers on stream flows make conservationists' eyes roll. They see old benchmarks that were rarely met in the past five years.

They see a major effort in the lower Columbia, while the Snake is in crisis. The feds counter they get the most recovery for the greatest number of salmon stocks on the lower Columbia estuary.

Tough, constructive review is not only desirable, it fuels a debate grounded in political reality. This has a chance. The plan holds out the possibility of dam breaching if in five or more years, endangered salmon stocks are about to disappear. That would trigger the pursuit of money to return the river to natural conditions.

Better to invest time, energy and honest effort in habitat, hydro, harvest and hatcheries. These are credible ways to help salmon.

Salmon Plan Worth a Dam
Seattle Times Company, July 30, 2000

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