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Four Dams on Snake River to Stand--For the Time Being

Ecology: Fisheries service is writing report on whether to breach the structures or let them stand. Dam defenders want to see the issue settled quickly, not tied to the progress of salmon.

May 14, 2000|JOHN HUGHES | ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON — The National Marine Fisheries Service is expected to say this month that four Snake River dams should remain standing for at least another five or 10 years.

After that, if not enough progress has been made in recovering salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act, the dams should be breached, the agency is expected to say.

The announcement is expected to be included in the details of the federal government's most comprehensive plan yet for recovering salmon in the Columbia Basin.

The service's draft biological opinion, due out May 22, will be released side by side with the so-called "All H" paper, which examines the role of hydropower, habitat, hatcheries and salmon harvests in recovery of the fish.

"We will construct an opinion which we hope will lay out measurable performance standards by which we can measure progress across the H's in improving survivals," said Will Stelle, regional director of the fisheries service.

"If we are not able to make substantial progress in the other H's, then it will leave the region with little choice but to look at dams," he said.

The opinion would serve as a forceful statement on the near-term future of the dams and would at least partly leave their long-term fate up to the region.

The plan would invite the region's government leaders, businesses and residents to work to avoid dam removal by taking steps such as leaving buffers along streams, covering irrigation intakes, spilling water over dams, increasing stream flows and improving water quality.

"There has been a food fight in the Pacific Northwest on some of these issues--it's time to end the food fight," Stelle said. "People are tired of the bickering and tired of the failure of the state and the federal government to come together with a cohesive plan."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is conducting its own Snake dams study and plans to make a final recommendation on breaching in the late fall, is expected to follow the fisheries service's lead and recommend a course that keeps the dams operating--at least in the short term.

In an effort to give the final biological opinion--due out in July--long-term credibility, the fisheries service plans to ask the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a yearlong study on the scientific foundation of the plan. The service would then make any recommended adjustments.

The opinion could cool some of the red-hot political debate about the dams in a critical election year.

But it may not. Environmentalists and industry groups are likely to harpoon the proposal.

Environmentalists say any biological opinion that does not make dam removal an immediate priority ignores what science says is the best short-term help for the fish.

Environmentalists are likely to file a lawsuit, claiming the service has not met its obligations under the Endangered Species Act and other federal laws.

Glen Spain, northwest regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Assns., said he suspects the service might try to avoid dam breaching in the short term. "But we're not going to let them," he said.

Dam defenders, on the other hand, want to see the Snake dams issue settled quickly and finally-- not tied to the progress of salmon across the region.

Removal "has to stand or fall on its own merits," said Bruce Lovelin, executive director of the Columbia River Alliance, a coalition of industry groups.

But Stelle said the four dams in southeastern Washington--the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite--should be viewed in the context of overall salmon recovery.

When the service first ordered the corps in 1995 to study the option of breaching the dams, three salmon stocks were listed--all on the Snake.

Now 13 fish stocks are listed throughout the Columbia Basin. Stelle contends the stocks at most risk are in the upper Columbia and Willamette rivers.

"I very much view this as a decision on a comprehensive strategy for rebuilding salmon and steelhead stocks throughout the basin," he said. "Must Snake River dams be part of the equation? Yes, they must, but they are not the sole consideration here."

The fisheries service first wrote a biological opinion in 1994 to guide federal uses of the hydropower system.

Environmentalists sued, saying the opinion was too weak. A judge agreed, and the fisheries service was ordered to rewrite the document.

The revised 60-page opinion of 1995 has stood since then, with the agency's promise that it would update the opinion and make it more comprehensive by 1999. The new opinion was delayed, however, because officials did not complete an extinction analysis of stocks in the upper Columbia River in time.

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