By Union-Bulletin and AP
Walla Walla Union-Bulletin
Federal fisheries officials are expected to say that if salmon recovery progress in the Columbia River Basin can be shown over the next 10 years, the Snake River dams may survive as well.
The announcement is expected to be included in the details of the federal government’s most comprehensive plan yet for recovering salmon in the region protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The National Marine Fisheries Service’s draft biological opInion, due May 22, will be released side-by-side with the socalled “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.
Michael Gorman, spokesman for NMFS, said the performance standards will essentially serve as triggers that will indicate whether the dams should stay or go.
Both sides of the dam breaching issue – environmental and economic development organizations – find fault with the NMFS recommendation, however.
Port of Walla Walla officials are wary about performance standards.
“What if ocean conditions turn out to be the major factor – not dams?” sald Jim Kuntz, Port. executive director. “We still believe the Corps has served as the fair broker and it was going to recommend leaving the dams intact before it was pressured to drop that recommendation.”
The NMFS’ opinion would serve as a forceful statement on the near-term future of the dams.
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,” Stelie said. “People are tired of the bickering and tired of the failure of the state and the federal government to come together with a Lohesive.
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 follpw the fisheries service’s lead and recommend a course that keeps the dams operating – at least in the short term.
The opinion could cool some of the redhot 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.
“It sounds like NMFS is stuck in manana mode,” said Todd True, an atorney with Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. “The science is in and there is an overwheiming consensus that the cornerstone of salmon recovery requlres dam bypass. A second point is that NMFS\’s own scientists agree that the extinction risk is extreme. Why put off to tomorrow what needs to be done today?”
True said that if NMFS continues delay tactics, the likelihood of a legal challenge will increase.
Glen Spain, northwest regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen\’s Associations, said he has suspected the service might try to avoid dam breaching in the short term. “But we’re not gomg to let them,” he said.
Dam defenders, on the other hand, want to see the issue settled quickly and permanently – 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 Affiance, a coalition of industry groups.
“Breaching the dams would only be appropriate if there were a scientific certainty it would actually help salmon”, he said.
“Frankly, I’d rather see a decision now, based on what we know now,” Lovelin said. A performance based strategy is “prone to fallure,” he said.
But Stelle said the four dams – 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 breaching the dams, three salmon stocks were listed – all on the Snake. Now 13 fish stocks are listed in the Columbia Basin.
Walla Walla Union-Bulletin
Walla Walla, WA
April 27, 2000