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That Dam Issue 

The real issue behind all the dam-busting rhetoric.

Breathless ads on TV, set in front of that now familiar wall of concrete, suggest that if you vote for so-and-so, he'll personally take the first sledgehammer swing to the four lower Snake River dams. While hugging those dams the way environmentalists used to be accused of hugging trees may make for a compelling campaign issue, it's not what it may seem. First of all, it's unlikely that any elected official will be able to get at the dams, even if they wanted to, for at least five years. There is a real issue behind all this rhetoric, but it's far more complex than can be communicated in a 30-second ad.

Dedicating the Hanford Reach National Monument, Vice President Al Gore said, "Extinction is not an option, nor is massive economic dislocation." In the first nationally televised presidential debate, Governor George W. Bush said, "Snake River dams will not be breached during my administration."

Other candidates follow their party's presidential candidate. Republican Senator Slade Gordon, Congressman George Nethercutt and gubernatorial candidate John Carlson have made opposition to breaching the Snake River dams a major campaign issue. Democratic Senate candidate Maria Cantwell, Congressional candidate Tom Keefe and Governor Gary Locke also oppose breaching, but match that opposition with emphasis on preserving Snake River salmon runs. Only Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader has endorsed dam breaching.

The issue the candidates refer to is the Columbia River Basin Salmon Recovery Plan, developed by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). That plan implements the previous NMFS listing of Snake River salmon runs as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). For five years, the NMFS plan will rely on recovery measures other than breaching. Referred to as the 4-Hs, these are Habitat restoration, Hatchery modification, Harvest regulation and Hydropower system modification.

If, in five years, NMFS decides the 4-Hs have failed, the agency may ask Congress to authorize breaching. In preparation for that possibility, the plan calls for immediate study of the economic impacts of breaching and measures to mitigate those impacts. Politicians like Slade Gorton are trying to prevent the issue from even being studied.

The other threat to the Snake River dams is litigation. Groups like American Rivers and Idaho Rivers assert that only breaching will comply with ESA. Scott Bosse, a conservation biologist with Idaho Rivers, says litigation is being prepared to ask the federal courts to order additional salmon recovery measures. They will move forward with that litigation unless breaching is adopted. In that effort, Bosse expects the support of tribes holding affected treaty fishing rights.

Much can change in the five-year interim provided by the NMFS plan. Facts can change, as well as our scientific understanding of them. Bryon Gorman, NMFS spokesman summarizes recent developments: "Chinook salmon returns to the entire Columbia River Basin are up this year. Improved ocean conditions are a major factor.

"We also have a better understanding of how recovery measures affect survival," Gorman continues. "Based on four years of data, new tagging procedures reveal disturbing differences in survival between fish barged around the dams and those passing through or over them. Virtually all (98 percent) of barged fish survive the barge or truck trip down the Columbia River, compared to much lower survival rates for in-river passage fish. However, in the ocean, fish that survive river passage do better than barged fish. Reasons for this are under investigation."

The Endangered Species Act may also change. ESA has not been formally authorized since 1992. Congressional critics of ESA insist on revisions softening its impact before voting for long-term reauthorization. ESA supporters resist these, including President Bill Clinton. During the standoff, the U.S. Supreme Court held that annual appropriations for the administration of ESA are de facto annual authorizations.

HR 3160 is a leading Republican proposal for ESA reform. One provision would put ESA on par with other federal laws. It would also allow the president (or his Senate confirmed designee) to make a public interest balancing decision concerning whether species recovery measures were worth their cost, measured in social and economic impacts. Nethercutt and Central Washington Republican Congressman Doc Hastings have co-sponsored that bill.

Nethercutt's Democratic opponent, Tom Keefe says: "I recognize, as does the current ESA, that economic costs and other adverse consequences of recovery measures may in some cases make it in the public interest to allow a species/population segment to continue declining, to whatever end. Circumstances calling for such a determination need not occur in the Snake River case if cost-effective recovery measures are pursued through cooperative action by all parties. That said, I categorically oppose breaching the Snake River dams."

Republicans have written off the most devoted environmentalists. They think "No breaching on my watch" is their winning issue. Democrats seek environmental votes, as well as the votes of farmers and other dam users. So they talk about saving the salmon and the dams, and the need for consensus.

No elected official can single-handedly stop breaching, if sufficient forces are arrayed in favor of it. Nor is consensus likely between groups like American Rivers and dam supporters.

What the TV ads don't tell you is that we are several election cycles away from final resolution of the breaching issue. Except for the Senate winner, the terms of this year's winners will expire before the NMFS's five-year interim runs out. However, this election, and actions by its winners, may set the direction of the long-term scientific, administrative, judicial and political process that will eventually resolve the issue.

Bob Stokes is a retired natural resource economics professor from the University of Washington.

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