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U.S. Rules Out Dam Removal to Aid Salmon

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  • Teresa Binstock
    U.S. Rules Out Dam Removal to Aid Salmon By FELICITY BARRINGER http://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/01/politics/01fish.html Jeff T. Green for The New York Times
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 1, 2004
      U.S. Rules Out Dam Removal to Aid Salmon

      By FELICITY BARRINGER
      http://www.nytimes.com/2004/12/01/politics/01fish.html


      Jeff T. Green for The New York Times
      {photo caption} This fish ladder was installed at Ice Harbor Dam to
      assist fish movement on the Snake River near Burbank, Wash., one of two
      at the dam.

      WA$$$HINGTON, Nov. 30 - The Bush administration on Tuesday ruled out the
      possibility of removing federal dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers to
      protect 11 endangered species of salmon and steelhead, even as a last
      resort.

      In an opinion issued by the fisheries division of the National
      Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the government declared
      that the eight large dams on the lower stretch of the two rivers are an
      immutable part of the salmon's environment.

      Endangered fish, the opinion said, can be protected by a variety of
      measures, including carrying fish around dams and building weirs - a new
      type of weir that works like a water slide - to ease young fishes'
      journey through dams as they swim downstream to the ocean. The total
      cost of the 10-year effort was projected at $6 billion. Assuming annual
      expenditures of $600 million, this represents a slight increase over
      existing spending for this purpose.

      "It is clear that each of the dams already exists, and their existence
      is beyond the present discretion" of federal agencies to reverse, the
      opinion said.

      The decision is a departure from the Clinton administration's approach
      to salmon protection. In 2000, it adopted a policy that allowed for dam
      removal, although only if all other measures had failed.

      The Bush administration opinion, first released in draft form in
      September, provoked immediate outrage on the part of environmentalists
      and some tribal groups, who see it as another in a series of federal
      actions weakening protection for the salmon that are an integral part of
      the regional identity of the Northwest, and whose numbers have been
      sharply reduced over the decades by overfishing, dam construction,
      industrial pollution and suburban sprawl.

      Earlier this year the fisheries division proposed including fish bred in
      hatcheries along with their wild cousins when calculating whether a
      salmon species is still endangered.

      Environmentalists say the administration is retreating from the goal of
      recovering salmon to robust populations, settling for the status quo.

      A spokesman for the fisheries division disagreed, saying the actions the
      agencies were taking or planned to take would be sufficient to protect
      the salmon. In a conference call Tuesday afternoon, officials of the
      fisheries service and the other agencies involved pointed out that they
      had drafted a letter addressed to the citizens of the Northwest with the
      assurance that "this approach does not represent a reduction in our
      commitment to salmon recovery."

      In May, a senior Commerce Department official wrote to Congress that
      despite the decision to include hatchery fish when determining the
      health of fish populations, the department would probably conclude that
      most species currently considered endangered would remain so.

      In a conference call Tuesday afternoon on the guidance to dam operators,
      Bob Lohn of the Northwest regional office of the fisheries service said,
      "The actions proposed by the federal agencies do provide major steps in
      making their operations fish-friendly." The dams already include fish
      ladders that enable many adult salmon to reach the higher parts of the
      rivers where they spawn.

      The policy is effectively a roadmap to guide the operations of the
      federal agencies and power authorities that operate dams on the Columbia
      and Snake Rivers. It also includes an appendix with detailed
      prescriptions for "reducing the risk factors" for eight of the 11
      species - prescriptions which, in some cases, call for some commingling
      of hatchery and wild fish.

      But, Mr. Lohn added, the policy "does not suggest that the dams result
      in no damage or that nothing should be done" to mitigate the effects
      that occur. Referring to the letter, he added, "We desire and we are
      eager to work with the region, with states and tribes, to complete the
      comprehensive plan" to set priorities for salmon recovery.

      But one representative of the National Wildlife Federation immediately
      asserted that the letter to the citizens did not have the standing of
      the formal biological opinion and so amounted to no legal commitment.
      John Kober, the wildlife program manager in the group's Seattle office,
      said, "What we'd likely find if this plan were carried out in 10 years
      is exactly where we are today - fish hovering near extinction thresholds
      and never getting one step closer to recovery."

      The National Wildlife Federation, along with the State of Oregon,
      successfully sued the Commerce Department, parent of the fisheries
      service, winning a judgment in 2003 that found that the Clinton policy,
      which included the possibility of dam removal among other remedies, was
      too vague and did not go far enough to protect the fish.

      That judgment, by Judge James Redden of Federal District Court in
      Portland, opened the door for the Bush administration to revisit the
      issue and produce the opinion that was announced on Tuesday.

      After the new policy was proposed in September, Judge Redden expressed
      skepticism at a court hearing, warning that the administration could be
      headed for a "train wreck."

      Mr. Kober said Tuesday that "we certainly are looking seriously at
      continuing our litigation as a last resort," in light of the new
      opinion. An Oregon fish and wildlife official said officials there were
      still studying the opinion.

      *

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