White House Gives Thumbs Down
by Gina London, CNN correspondent
WASHINGTON -- In what may be a blow to both environmentalists and Vice President Al Gore's presidential campaign, the Clinton administration will not support removal of four hydroelectric dams on the Snake River in the Pacific Northwest to assist the recovery of endangered salmon.
The White House revealed the decision in papers released Wednesday detailing planned congressional testimony from George Frampton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
The four earthen dams in the state of Washington have emerged as a regional issue in the presidential campaign.
Many people in the Pacific Northwest have been torn between supporting attempts to recover salmon runs protected under the Endangered Species Act and accepting the higher electricity rates and other problems that could come from bringing down the dams.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the presumptive Republican nominee, says the dams should stay, while Gore, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has not taken a stance on the issue.
In his written testimony, Frampton said dam breaching is one step among many that holds promise for recovering Snake River salmon runs.
"But it is also clear that breaching the Snake River dams may not be essential to recovering these runs, and probably would not be sufficient," he said.
Plus, Frampton said, "Dam breaching will require congressional authorization, funding, detailed planning and execution -- over an uncertain period that is not likely to be less than a decade, and perhaps much longer."
In a statement released by his campaign, Bush said, "Al Gore should take a stand. I say we can use technology to save the salmon, without leaving the door open to destroying these dams.
"Today's announcement is the latest attempt by Bill Clinton and Al Gore to make this issue go away until after the election. I have consistently said we should not destroy these dams. Al Gore wants the door left open to their destruction."
Gore said the matter needs further study and that he would review the administration's position carefully.
"As president, I will bring all the parties and stakeholders together," Gore told reporters during a campaign visit to Missouri. "I am going to ... come up with a solution that respects the environment and does not cause an upheaval in the economy."
Eastern dam already down
Across the country in Maine, it took 10 years for the Kennebec Coalition to win removal of the Edwards Dam across the Kennebec River in Augusta, the state capital. The removal of the dam, one year ago this month, allowed for the return of at least 10 species of migratory fish.
It was the first hydroelectric dam in the United States ordered breached by the government against the dam owners' wishes.
The fish species had not been able to swim that part of the Kennebec since the dam was built 162 years ago.
Eighteen miles of the river were affected by the dam removal, a stretch of water running from Augusta in the south to Waterville in the north.
"It's remarkable to talk to people who used to work at the mills up near Waterville at the end of the 18 mile stretch who said they couldn't imagine a day when people wouldn't think it was OK to dump vats of chemicals in the river," said Laura Rose Day of the Natural Resources Council of Maine. "Let alone see a river that's free-flowing, full of oxygen, restored, and where they're catching 52-inch striped bass."
Scott Davis is a river guide who knows the Kennebec like the back of his hand after fishing the river for some 20 years.
"I see a whole new, reborn river," said Davis, of Fish n' Fowl Guide Service.
"Stripers weren't here, your herring, your sturgeon, your salmon. Fish life, the wildlife, there's just so much more right now ... with the dam removed," Davis said.
Electrical side effects
The increase in recreational fishing and boating is helping Augusta recoup its losses. Although Edwards Dam produced only about one-tenth of 1 percent of Maine's energy, the city lost about $250,000 in revenue and taxes with its removal.
Since the removal of the dam, at least 25 other dams across the country have been taken out, and more than a dozen are slated for removal this summer and fall.
But critics say hydropower dams are responsible for most of the renewable energy in the United States and that removing too many dams could create a bigger environmental problem.
"For every 1,000 of kilowatt hours of electricity that are lost from hydropower, we have to replace that with fossil fuels," said hydropower attorney Mike Swiger.
Supporters of the Snake River dams say closing down the dams' hydroelectric generators would eliminate about 5 percent of the region's electricity, hiking electric bills $1 to $5 a month.
Many environmentalists, however, see the resurgence of the Kennebec as a positive precedent.
"The Kennebec coalition worked for more than 10 years to remove the Edwards Dam, and because they had success, people say, 'Hey, this isn't just a dream, it's reality,'" said Pat Keliher of the Coastal Conservation Association of Maine. "People are really rushing to try to remove these dams that have no benefit."
The trick, environmentalists say, is to examine each dam's usefulness on a case-by-case basis, so the current trickle of removals does not turn into a haphazard torrent.
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