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Feds may Review Salmon Spending

by Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
The Columbian, November 15, 2003

PORTLAND -- Bush administration officials extolled recent surges in Columbia River basin salmon runs during a regional conference here, saying the time is ripe to re-examine the $600 million the government dedicates to salmon recovery every year.

Bonneville Power Administration administrator Steve Wright and White House environmental adviser David Anderson added that favorable ocean conditions played a key role in boosting salmon returns -- a welcome development, but one in which the government has zero control.

"Record runs, right? Record runs -- I'm happy I'm here saying that rather than the opposite," said Anderson, deputy director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Anderson spoke during the Salmon Crossroads conference at the DoubleTree Hotel-Lloyd Center, sponsored mainly by electric utilities.

Although salmon and steelhead counts at Bonneville Dam in the past few years have been the highest since record-keeping began in 1938, experts note that 3 million returning adults is well below the estimated 10 million to 16 million that crowded into the Columbia basin in the years before European settlement. The overwhelming majority of the fish returning these days were raised in concrete and steel raceways of hatcheries, rather than spawning in rivers on their own.

Twelve stocks of Columbia basin salmon and steelhead remain listed as threatened or endangered.

Tribal groups, which weren't included in any of the day's panel discussions, maintain the government has an obligation to restore salmon under the Endangered Species Act and a series of 19th-century treaties with the tribes.

"The tribes are completely in agreement that we have to be cost-effective, but we can't hide behind cost-effectiveness," said Charles Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "We can't have accounting departments making biological opinions."

Wright said the federal government boosted its financial commitment to Columbia basin salmon from $150 million in the early 1990s to $600 million by the decade's end. Though the BPA and other federal agencies acted in response to a flurry of Endangered Species Act listings, Wright said the recent upsurge in salmon provides time to make sure the government is getting the most bang for the buck.

He attributed about half of the government's financial commitment to sacrificing of hydropower by spilling water around dam turbines and boosting flow from massive upstream reservoirs. Biologists devised the measures to safely propel juvenile fish toward the ocean, but doing so saps the dams' capability of generating electricity.

Summer spill alone costs Bonneville $80 million in an average year, Wright said, "for a relatively small amount of fish." The Northwest's sluggish economy underscores the need for Bonneville to closely examine its costs, he said.

"This is not about just saving Bonneville money," Wright said in an interview. "We want to achieve the objective, and do it in ways that are efficient."

Anderson said President Bush has focused on results, while his administration lobbies East Coast lawmakers for paying to restore Pacific salmon.

"I do hear the how-much-does-it-cost-per-fish question," Anderson said in an interview. "But if you're in the Pacific Northwest, salmon is probably the most important natural resource with which you identify."

Scientists noted that recent gains could be reversed with the next inevitable change in ocean conditions. Generally cold offshore currents have pulled nutrients from the ocean bottom, leading to an abundance of zooplankton and other staples of the salmon's diet.

Larry Cassidy, a Vancouver resident and chairman of the U.S.-Canada Pacific Salmon Commission, warned against the temptation to rely primarily on hatcheries for salmon recovery. More needs to be done to boost the number of fish spawning successfully in rivers.

"It's clear that wild fish are the ones that can regenerate successfully, cycle after cycle," Cassidy said. "We can't fall back to where (hatcheries are) the only resolution to fish recovery."

Erik Robinson, Staff Writer
Feds may Review Salmon Spending
The Columbian, November 15, 2003

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