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National Perspective | ENVIRONMENT

Between a Rock, Hard Place Where Dams, Salmon Meet

U.S. struggles with issue of dismantling Snake River barriers to save species.

June 13, 2000|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOWER GRANITE DAM, Wash. — A young salmon making its way to the ocean has three alternatives when it hits this 100-foot-high hunk of concrete in the middle of the Snake River.

If the river's running good, it can spill with the whitewater over the top, getting its blood pumped full of dangerous levels of nitrogen gas in the froth below the dam.

It can plunge down through the hydropower turbines, getting sliced up on the blades or battered against the walls.

Or it can get siphoned into a long, narrow, diversion channel, shot into a pressurized pipe, herded into a holding pen, loaded onto a barge and shipped for 36 hours down a gantlet of seven other dams. The stunned young fish are released at the mouth of the Columbia River to face flocks of hungry terns and sea lions.

And then they have to make their way back.

That every single species of Snake River salmon and steelhead is now threatened with extinction, some possibly within the next decade, comes as little surprise.

The solution that seems obvious to conservationists--taking out the dams--is proving one of the most difficult environmental dilemmas the Clinton administration has confronted.

Faced with a powerful coalition of farming and industry that backs the dams--to say nothing of the legendary federal hydropower system that fueled the development of the Pacific Northwest--the National Marine Fisheries Service is confronted in an election year with the prospect of either recommending the demolition of the dams or, many predict, watching the salmon disappear.

A landmark biological opinion intended to address the issue of whether to breach four dams on the Snake River, originally scheduled for release at the beginning of this month, now has been delayed until, an agency spokesman said, "sometime this summer."

"It may be the most difficult biological opinion we have ever written, or ever will write," fisheries spokesman Brian Gorman said.

Of the millions of salmon and steelhead that filled the Columbia River in the days of Lewis and Clark, barely 3,000 wild spring chinook are expected to pass Lower Granite Dam this year. Snake River coho are already extinct. What is the subject of unending debate, however, is why the salmon are disappearing.

Unfavorable ocean conditions in recent years clearly have been a culprit. As has the disappearance of habitat because of logging and other development. Then there is fishing. And the dams themselves.

Their defenders say the dams may well have once killed up to 80% of the salmon runs. But they add that "techno-fixes" designed to get the fish safely around the dams, and the barging of juvenile salmon, have eased most of that problem.

Robert Masonis of the environmental group American Rivers isn't buying that. Standing out on Lower Granite one recent day, he said the crucial thing to remember is that no matter how many young salmon survive the barging trip down the river, woefully few make it back to spawn.

"Everybody agrees there's a high risk of extinction, and it's a high risk in the short term," he said. "We need to act now. We need to act big."

Which is why conservation groups are concerned that the fisheries service may recommend studying the issue for another five to 10 years, trying other alternatives like habitat improvement and harvest controls, before ordering the dams breached.

For the dams' defenders, trying other options before spending $1 billion to breach the dams is the only logical move.

Breaching the dams, they argue, will force the federal hydropower agency to find replacement energy for the power the dams generate, will leave thousands of farmers in Idaho and Washington stranded without a way to barge their wheat crops to sea.

And removing the dams provides no guarantees, said Bruce Lovelin, head of Columbia River Alliance, an industry, barging and farming interest group. "The missing link and the central question of the entire study is, will dam breaching recover Northwest salmon?" Lovelin said.

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