Campaigners call US Government’s draft plan, refusing dam removal, “a death sentence for salmon”

A US Government draft plan to restore threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin has been universally condemned by environmental groups for failing to recommend the removal of four dams, which they say is necessary to restore populations.

The draft plan of the US Government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, (NOAA), to restore these fish in their Pacific Northwest rivers, released on 27 July, has attracted a storm of criticism from a wide range of environmental campaign groups, who have called current plans “a death sentence for salmon.”

The Columbia and Snake Rivers Campaign, an umbrella group of 14 campaign groups maintains that hydropower dams on the two rivers kill between 80-95% of migrating young salmon and steelhead. They say that only a few hundred thousand wild fish return each year, whereas there were once up to 15 million. The groups goal is to recover populations by partially removing four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington State and lowering the reservoir behind John Day dam on the Columbia, which would will restore over 200 miles of river habitat.

“This plan (the draft) is dead on arrival, just like the salmon will be, unless it requires automatic removal of the dams in 2005,” said Rebecca R. Wodder, president of American Rivers, one of the organisations in the Columbia and Snake Rivers Campaign.

However, the Acting Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, George Frampton, said that the government was “fully committed to doing its part to restore the imperilled salmon of the Pacific Northwest,” and called the draft “a long-term strategy grounded in the best available science.” He said that the draft “places the highest priority on those actions likely to produce the greatest benefit for the broadest range of species throughout the basin.”

Frampton said that stringent performance standards would gauge the status of salmon stocks and the success of recovery efforts over the next five to ten years, which would determine “if more aggressive recovery efforts—including the breaching of four Lower Snake River dams—will be necessary.” The plan would strive to improve improving water quality, overhaul a government fish hatcheries programme to minimise harm to wild salmon, maintain ceilings on fish harvests, and improve fish passage through dams. Frampton stressed that the approach would require the joint efforts of Congress, the northwestern states, federal agencies, and Indian tribes.

“Extinction is not an option,” he added.

As well as a federal lack of commitment to removing the dams, another problem is that they help power cities from Seattle to Los Angeles, and support much of the region’s agricultural economy.

Frampton’s words have done little to reassure the Columbia and Snake Rivers Campaign who have pledged to do everything possible to get the Clinton Administration to overhaul the draft before it is finalised in the Autumn.

The group says that the plan offers no hope for species such as the chinook salmon, which is likely, be functionally extinct by 2017. “Dam removal is the only legally and scientifically defensible choice for salmon recovery,” said Buck Parker of umbrella group members, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund.

“Everyone knows that habitat is the key. But, the federal agencies are ignoring the fact that 140 miles of formerly prime spawning, rearing, and migration habitat in the Snake River has been drowned by dams and reservoirs,” said Liz Hamilton of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. “This draft plan is out of step with the science, it won’t help restore the 10,000 jobs lost in fishing communities due to salmon declines, and it side-steps the real decisions needed for Northwest salmon and people.”

Mark Van Putten, CEO and president of the National Wildlife Federation, with 4 million members nation-wide, called the draft plan as written “doomed to failure.”

The Snake River dams have even become an issue in the presidential campaign. Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush says the dams should stay, while his Democratic opponent, Al Gore, has given no commitment either way.

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