Plan says removal
of Snake River dams would be 'last resort'
By WILLIAM McCALL
PORTLAND -- Calling it an "insurance policy" for salmon, the Obama administration has offered up a tougher conservation plan for the Pacific Northwest that includes monitoring for climate change and possible dam removal.
But a top official also said the original plan drafted during the previous Bush administration and completed last year was "biologically and legally sound" when combined with measures added by the Obama administration.
Jane Lubchenco, chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the plan submitted Tuesday, Sept. 15, to a federal judge for approval sets specific triggers for taking quick action to save salmon if conditions change in the Columbia River Basin.
"The key to this insurance plan are contingency measures that will be implemented in case of a significant decline in fish abundance," Lubchenco said.
One of those contingency measures would be possible removal of four lower Snake River dams, a measure that she said would be a "last resort."
The plan, called a "biological opinion," drew immediate criticism from both sides of the long debate over the Columbia and other Northwest rivers that provide fish, hydroelectricity, irrigation and cargo routes.
"The Obama administration has put dam removal back on the table and delivered just what dam removal extremists have been demanding," said U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.
Breaching the four Snake River dams would take a "terrible economic toll" on the Northwest with higher energy prices and thousands of lost jobs without any assurance it would lead to fish recovery, Hastings said.
But Nicole Cordan, legal and policy director of the Save Our Wild Salmon coalition, said the revised Obama administration plan simply repeats what the coalition believes are the same mistakes made by the Bush administration.
"They adopted Bush-era science and politics," Cordan said.
"Again, we've had eight years of these same actions and same kind of work, and what we're seeing is a whole lot of money spent and not a whole lot of impact happening on the ground," she said.
U.S. District Judge James Redden rejected two earlier plans in 2003 and 2005, threatening at one point to take control of salmon recovery efforts.
The new plan would immediately boost mitigation programs to help salmon survival, expand research and monitoring, and set specific biological "triggers" for even stronger measures if numbers of threatened fish fail to reach certain benchmarks.
The Obama administration said it will speed up things such as habitat improvement projects because of concerns about uncertainties such as the effect of climate change.
The revised plan also directs the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin studying removal of the Snake River dams in the southeast corner of Washington, but warned it was "viewed as an action of last resort."
No action would be taken before 2013 at the earliest.
The biological opinion is required by the federal Endangered Species Act to protect salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin.
It was prepared by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the three federal agencies involved in operating dams, the Army Corps, the Bonneville Power Administration and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Associated Press writer Matthew Daly contributed to this story from Washington, D.C.