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Columbia Fish Recovery at $3.3 Billion and Counting

by Jim Barnett
The Oregonian, August 27, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Federal agencies have spent $3.3 billion trying to recover endangered salmon in the Northwest during the past 20 years but cannot measure the impact of their efforts reliably, according to a report issued Monday.

The report, from the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, was the government's first comprehensive assessment of salmon recovery costs and results.

The GAO concluded what many critics in the region have suspected for years: Despite massive spending, federal agencies cannot show that their efforts have had an impact on numbers of adult fish that return to the basin to spawn.

"(A)lthough these actions are generally viewed as resulting in higher numbers of returning adult salmon and steelhead, there is little conclusive evidence to quantify the extent of their effects on returning fish populations," the report said.

Federal agencies have failed to quantify the effects of their actions because they cannot account for natural fluctuations in numbers of returning adults or for the effects of weather and ocean conditions, the GAO added.

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, who requested the report last year, said the GAO's conclusions highlight the need for greater accountability and for reform of the Endangered Species Act.

"The focus now should be on learning from past mistakes and successes and quickly deciding where we go from here to get the job done," Crapo said in a statement.

Although the GAO measured costs across two decades, it noted that $1.5 billion had been spent in the past five years, a period in which scientists studied the possibility of breaching four Snake River dams to aid recovery.

In all, 11 federal agencies contribute to salmon recovery, the GAO said. The report also identified 65 groups that coordinate efforts between federal agencies, as well as with states, tribes, local governments and other interested parties.

The biggest contributor by far is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. During the past five years, the corps has spent $589.7 million, with much of that amount spent barging fish around dams or fixing dams to ease passage.

The other 10 agencies spent a combined $378.3 million over the five-year period, while another $537 million was channeled through federal agencies to states, tribes and other outside parties.

Most of the agencies surveyed by the GAO agreed with the agency's findings. The one exception was the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets power from the dams.

The BPA said the report failed to show how the agency helps offset federal costs through wholesale electricity rates. The BPA said its ratepayers help pay for dam improvements and maintenance, and also bear the burden of replacement-power costs when additional water is needed to improve river flows.

"Without a description of Bonneville's repayment role, readers of the report may erroneously believe that because these costs start out as appropriated dollars they are fully borne by the U.S. taxpayers," the BPA wrote in response.

Jim Barnett
Columbia Fish Recovery at $3.3 Billion and Counting
The Oregonian, August 27, 2002

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