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Government: Big Dams Not A Threat to Salmon

by Jeff Barnard, Associated Press
Corvalis Gazette-Times, September 1, 2004

NOAA Fisheries files Columbia Basin plan with federal court

GRANTS PASS -- By spending $6 billion on improvements over the next 10 years, the Columbia Basin's federal hydroelectric dams can be operated without jeopardizing the survival of threatened and endangered salmon, the government concluded Thursday. NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency responsible for restoring dwindling salmon runs in the Northwest, came to that conclusion in a biological opinion filed with the U.S. District Court in Portland, where a judge had found a 2000 opinion inadequate because there was no assurance that mandated measures to protect salmon would actually be carried out by federal agencies.

The latest biological opinion sets a new course for salmon recovery in the Columbia Basin by jettisoning a movement toward restoring the Columbia and Snake rivers to a more natural condition, and acknowledging the dams as part of the landscape that cannot be removed.

The plan drew sharp criticism from environmentalists and Indian tribes, who continue to believe removing four dams on the lower Snake River is the best course to salmon recovery, but support from utilities, irrigators, grain shippers and others who depend on the dams for power, navigation and water.

Under the Endangered Species Act, the operation of the dozens of federal hydroelectric dams, reservoirs and powerhouses on the Columbia and Snake rivers and their tributaries cannot jeopardize the survival of protected salmon. NOAA Fisheries has the responsibility to review the proposal for operating the dams and issue what is called a biological opinion.

In May 2003, U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland ruled that the biological opinion issued in 2000 was illegal because the federal government could not guarantee that habitat enhancements and upgrades to hatchery and dam operations to prevent jeopardizing salmon survival would be done.

The new analysis takes a different approach, considering the harm dam operations cause to salmon, but not the harm caused by the dams simply being there, said Bob Lohn, Northwest regional director of NOAA Fisheries.

Lohn said in a teleconference call from Portland that President Bush's promise not to remove the Snake River dams did not shape the biological opinion, because NOAA Fisheries had already advised the White House that salmon could be restored without removing the dams.

The agency based its analysis on two models. One was based on operating the dams in the best interests of fish, and the other was based on actual dam operations.

The dams are operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. The power is sold by the Bonneville Power Administration. By collaborating with them, NOAA came up with a plan of operations that would not jeopardize salmon survival, Lohn said.

The biggest single step is installation of removable spillway weirs that would increase survival of young fish migrating downstream to the ocean by easing them over the dams while requiring less water to be spilled rather than run through turbines, Lohn said.

One has already been installed at Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River in Washington, and the other seven major dams will be equipped over 10 years.

Measures to reduce predation by birds and fish will increase, as will habitat improvements and improvements to hatcheries. The amount of water spilled to help salmon migrate downstream will be reduced.

Overall, the plan will cost about $600 million a year for 10 years, Lohn said.

John Kober, wildlife program manager for the National Wildlife Federation, said the money would be better spent to remove the four Snake River dams and create new ways to offer the electricity, irrigation and grain shipping they provide.

Ron Suppah, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation, said the plan relied upon measures "ranging from absurd to speculative,'' and did not follow Judge Redden's instructions.

"NOAA granted clemency to the biggest cause of mortality the biggest killer of all listed and nonlisted salmon stocks, the hydro system,'' Suppah said.

"NOAA Fisheries is moving in the right direction,'' said Glenn Vanselow of the Northwest Waterways Association, which represents ports, grain shippers, towboat operators, irrigators and utilities. "We think it will allow the agencies to better manage for cost-effective measures to continue to rebuild the fish runs.''

Related Pages:
22 Sockeye Return by Jennifer Sandmann, Seattle Times 9/1/4
Removable Spillway Weir at Ice Harbor a Top Priority for 2004 by Bill Rudolph, NW Fishletter 2/6/4
First Year Test Results Promising for Spillway Prototype Barry Espenson, Columbia Basin Bulletin 3/7/3

Jeff Barnard, Associated Press
Government: Big Dams Not A Threat to Salmon
Corvalis Gazette-Times, September 1, 2004

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