A study is not imminent, and it would take several years to complete.
By Kevin McCullen
A dramatic decline in the four-year average of wild salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act or a natural catastrophe are among the “trigger” events that would have to happen to launch the study.
“There’s a lot of things that would have to fall into place before we could ever get to this step,” said Greg Graham, chief of planning for the Army Corps of Engineers’ Walla Walla District.
And even if the study recommended removing the four dams on the Lower Snake River to ensure survival of endangered wild salmon and steelhead, the final decision would be up to Congress, the Corps said.
The Nez Perce Tribe, environmentalists and fishing businesses in Idaho and throughout the Pacific Northwest have argued in court that removing the four dams is necessary for the recovery of wild stocks of the four endangered salmon and steelhead that spawn in Idaho rivers. They argue that the trigger would come too late to keep the species from disappearing if the ocean cycle changes to conditions that aid salmon’s predators and make them less productive.
The study would include a technical phase and public-policy phase and possibly the development of an environmental impact statement. It would incorporate information gathered for a 2002 study of breaching the dams.
The Corps estimates that the study of breaching the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams could cost up to $19.8 million, based on 2010 prices.
The dam study contingency is included in a 2009 Adaptive Management Implementation Plan submitted to U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland in support of the 2008-2018 Federal Columbia River Power System Biological Opinion – the salmon-recovery document mandated by the Endangered Species Act.
The biological opinion outlines salmon restoration steps. Redden, who is deciding a lawsuit involving the salmon recovery issue, invited the Obama administration in 2009 to review it. In September, the administration said it supported the opinion but proposed several changes.
A series of other remedial actions, from adjusting operations of the dams to predator control, would happen before breaching could be considered, according to the Adaptive Management Plan.
Dam removal is a “contingency of last resort and would be recommended to Congress only when the best scientific information available indicates dam breaching would be effective and is necessary to avoid jeopardizing the continued existence of the affected Snake River species,” the plan said.
The plan further says it is “reasonable to study breaching of lower Snake River dam(s) as a contingency of last resort because the status of the Snake River species is improving and the 2008 BiOp analysis concluded that breaching is not necessary to avoid jeopardy.”
Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said the possibility of dam removal never should have been included in the plan.
“If the Obama administration wants to prove that they truly consider dam removal a ‘last resort,’ then they must file away this Corps dam-removal study in a locked drawer and be prepared to resist those who will push for the work to begin now,” Hastings said in a statement. “The Obama administration’s amendment to the BiOp states that the dam removal study work outlined in the Corps plan won’t begin until a far-off, future trigger occurs – and the administration must defend this plan and fight efforts by any who wish to fast-forward dam removal activities today, whether they be dam removal extremists or a federal judge.”
Wild spring, summer and fall chinook and steelhead are the listed species in the Snake River system. Runs of adult fish, hatchery and wild, were strong last year, and biologists have predicted another big run this year in the Columbia River system.
“Overall, the status of the Snake River species has improved,” said Lt. Col. Michael Farrell, district commander of the Corps’ Walla Walla District.
The Idaho Statesman contributed.