Bush Officials Say Dams Do Not Jeopardize Salmon
By J.R. Pegg
WASHINGTON, DC, September 2, 2004 (ENS) - Federal dams are a permanent part of the Columbia River Basin and do not jeopardize the future of endangered salmon, according to the Bush administration's latest revision to the federal salmon plan.
This new position contrasts with previous determinations by federal scientists and adds to broad disagreement about how to protect and restore wild salmon, considered by many an icon of the Pacific Northwest.
The biological opinion lies at the heart of the administration's draft revision of the federal salmon plan, which federal officials said would be released by September 10.
In May 2003 U.S. District Court Judge James Redden ordered the plan rewritten after determining it violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA) because there was no certainty that the recommended actions in the plan would be carried out.
Thirteen different salmon and steelhead populations listed as endangered or threatened under the Act live in waters impacted by the 14 federal dams on the Columbia River Basin.
During the Clinton administration, federal biologists concluded that the dams did jeopardize wild salmon and said breaching some of the dams - in particular four dams on the lower Snake River - would help ensure their longterm recovery and survival.
But the Bush administration has been steadfast in its opposition to breaching any dams within the basin.
The new position is a dramatic shift because it allows NOAA Fisheries to ignore the impact of the dams' existence and instead only evaluate the impacts of dam operations.
Both impacts were considered in prior biological opinions.
The new position is sound because the dams "were in place before the Endangered Species Act," Bob Lohn, northwest regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries, told reporters via a teleconference on Tuesday.
"What our work shows is that you can achieve recovery without removing the dams," Lohn said.
Salmon advocates say the administration is ignoring the fact that the dams are the primary obstacle to salmon recovery and believe the new position probably violates the Endangered Species Act.
"By including man-made dams in the 'natural' environmental baseline, NOAA avoided having to even examine the full effects of the dams," said Rob Masonis of American Rivers.
The draft plan is a "large step backward [and a] major disappointment for people who want to restore healthy, harvestable, abundant salmon runs - not just remnant museum-piece runs teetering on the brink of extinction," Masonis said.
The plan calls for federal dam operators to measure the performance of their proposed operations and adjust efforts accordingly to ensure salmon protection and that salmon numbers continue to thrive.
Bush officials say it balances the energy and water needs of the Northwest with the commitment to increasing healthy salmon stocks.
"This is a win-win scenario for salmon and for the citizens of the Northwest," said Lohn, who added that increasing salmon returns show that the fish can coexist with hydroelectric dams.
Nearly all ESA-listed populations are significantly improved from numbers counted in 2000 and well above 10-year averages, according to NOAA Fisheries.
Lohn acknowledged the role of favorable ocean cycles in improved returns, but said habitat restoration and new technologies to aid fish passage have helped.
The new plan promotes the use of removable spillway weirs, which help young salmon safely navigate the dams as they migrate to the sea and allow dam operators to spill less water needed to aid the salmon.
The plan comes in the wake of renewed debate over spilling water over dams to aid migrating salmon.
The Bush administration tried to cut "summer spill" for several dams this summer, but the move was challenged by salmon advocates and blocked by Redden.
The summer spill controversy came on the heels of another Bush administration proposal that drew the ire of salmon advocates - one that would allow hatchery-raised salmon to be considered when determining whether wild salmon should be protected under the ESA.
The hatchery fish proposal also reverses the past position of NOAA Fisheries, which held that hatchery fish should not be included in population counts used to determine the status of wild salmon and steelhead stocks.
Twenty-six Pacific salmon and steelhead populations are listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA.
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