By Les Blumenthal
The News Tribune
The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday became the first federal agency to officially suggest that breaching four dams may be the best way to improve water quality and restore endangered salmon on the Snake River.
While the EPA did not call for breaching outright, it criticized a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ study of how best to rebuild the runs as inadequate.”
“The environmental impact statement must acknowledge the effects of existing dams on water quality,” the EPA said in a letter to the corps. “Water quality impacts are particularly important because they pertain directly to the biological requirements of the fish that the feasibility study is intended to address.”
The EPA letter underscored the deep divisions among federal agencies over how best to restore salmon stocks and made clear the White House likely will become the final arbitrator.
Chuck Clarke, the EPA’s regional administrator in Seattle, wrote the letter to Lt. Col. William Bulen Jr. He heads the Corps’ district office in Walla Walla, which has jurisdiction over the Snake River dams.
Corps officials said they were surprised by Clarke’s letter.
“We will definitely work with them and have been working with them,” said Col. Eric Mogren of the Corps’ Walla Walla office. “Frankly, we were surprised at the severity of their rating. They gave us no indication it was coming.”
Environmentalists said Clarke’s letter bolstered their case for breaching the dams, while river user groups said there were other alternatives that would work just as well, if not better, to recover the salmon runs.
Under the 1972 Clean Water Act, EPA has the power to enforce water quality standards. The agency has argued the four lower Snake darns have created water temperatures and levels of dissolved gases that violate those standards.
Biologists long have known high water temperatures can jeopardize a salmonπs survival and too high a level of dissolved gas, in this instance nitrogen, can kill the fish.
In its environmental review, the Corps outlined four alternatives for restoring the salmon runs, including maintaining the status quo, barging more fish downstream to avoid the dams, improving the fish passage facilities at the dams and breaching.
While Corps officials were prepared to dismiss dam breaching as a viable alternative, the White House stepped in and ordered the Corps not make any recommendations or pick a preferred alternative.
The EPA found that three of the four alternatives were “environmentally unsatisfactory.” Though the EPA said it had concerns about the fourth alternative – dam breaching – Clarke noted in his letter it was the only one that would “likely result in the attainment of water quality standards in at least the midterm.”
The EPA said claims in the Corps’ environmental study that the four dams actually lowered water temperatures in the river were based on “selective” data. The study also understated the impact of the dams on the levels of dissolved gases in the river, the EPA said.
Clarke’s letter came less than two days after the National Marine Fisheries Service indicated it would consider dam breaching only if salmon runs couldn’t be recovered in the five to 10 years by such actions as improving salmon habitat or limiting fishing.
The fisheries service will issue a draft of its plan for improving the runs, known as a biological opinion, by the end of May. A final version will be adopted later this summer.
Critics of breaching have said such a step would reduce the region’s supply of low-cost electricity, cut back on the amount of irrigation water available to farmers and end barge traffic which carries wheat downstream from as far away as the Dakotas.
Supporters say the dams supply only 5 percent of the region\’s electricity, water from dam’s reservoirs irrigate little land, and the barges can be replaced by truck and rail. They argue the only way to restore the runs is by once again creating a free-flowing river.
EPA officials were quick to insist they hadn’t endorsed dam breaching but added that it needed to be considered in addressing water quality concerns.
“Absolutely it needs to be on the table,” said Mary Lou Soscia, the EPA’s Columbia River coordinator in Portland. “We need to look at all the options. We need full disclosure.”
Environmentalists who have filed a federal court lawsuit in an effort to force the Corps to comply with Clean Water Act, said EPA was on the right track. “The EPA seems to understand you can’t comply with the Clean Water Act without taking the dams out,” said Bill Arthur, Northwest director of the Sierra Club in Seattle. “The EPA won’t let the other agencies hide.”
Bruce Lovelin, executive director of the Columbia River Alliance, a group of river-users, said he was concerned the EPA’s position might push the administration in supporting dam breaching.
There is no way to sugarcoat it,” Lovelin said. “This is not good news.”
The News Tribune
April 29, 2000