By Robert Stokes

Last week, Seattle Congressman Jim McDermott reopened the breaching of the four lower Snake River dams issue. Thought to be a dead issue with George W. Bush in the White House, McDermott, a Democrat, submitted a bill to study, and conditionally authorize, breaching the four controversial dams. McDermott's office and the bill's environmentalist and fishing industry supporters prefer to emphasize its study purpose and downplay the conditional authorization aspect. But they do hope the bill pushes the Bush Administration to give more emphasis to present salmon recovery efforts. Currently, the Bonneville Power Administration spends more than $200 million in Northwest ratepayer money on salmon recovery each year. The latest plan (submitted at the end of the Clinton Administration) calls for doubling that spending. The Bush Administration continued but did not increase salmon recovery funding.

Says McDermott: "The Bush Administration... failed to allocate funds to implement the 2000 Salmon Recovery Plan to avoid dam removal. If this bill nudges them to take the plan seriously, and it is successful in preventing breaching... no one would be happier than I... [But] Now is the time to plan for all contingencies."

Reaction from Eastern Washington's two Republican Congressmen was swift and hostile. George Nethercutt, whose 5th Congressional District includes the dams, called McDermott's bill, "The dumbest legislation I've seen in a long time. The goal of this bill is not salmon protection; it is dam removal."

Doc Hastings, who represents Central Washington, wrote his congressional colleagues condemning McDermott's effort as, "a bill to jump-start the short-sighted, dangerous and divisive proposal to tear down four hydroelectric dams on the Snake River." Other members of Washington's congressional delegation are withholding comment until they can study the bill.

If approved, the studies would be completed in time for the 2003 formal consideration of breaching required by the National Marine Fisheries Service salmon recovery plan. Availability of study results would inform that decision concerning economic effects of breaching on the Eastern Washington economy, and indicate methods of replacing transportation and other services now provided by the Snake River dams.

The conditional authorization provision reads, in part: "The Secretary of the Army, acting through the Corps of Engineers, is authorized to partially remove the four Snake River dams if (1) the Secretary of Commerce finds that such action is necessary to restore Snake River salmon and steelhead to meet obligations under the Endangered Species Act of 1973..."

McDermott's bill is unlikely to make much progress in the current Congress. But if it does advance, expect fireworks over that provision. Its significance can be seen by comparing the legal positions of the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and the Corps of Engineers (COE). The BPA has congressional authority to spill water over dams to help salmon. That means federal courts can compel the agency to do so if required by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Earlier this year environmental groups initiated litigation that could have that eventual effect.

They cannot do the same for breaching, as long as the Corps of Engineers lacks congressional authority to breach dams. McDermott's bill would give the Corps that congressional authority. In the play of the breaching game, congressional authorization increases the exposure of the Corps of Engineers (and thus the Snake River dams) to the possibility that breaching might be compelled by the following sequence of events; environmental groups file lawsuits under the Endangered Species Act; a federal court responds to those lawsuits by ordering the National Marine Fisheries Service and Corps of Engineers to take more aggressive measures to implement ESA, including dame breaching; the agencies comply with those orders. A shorter sequence of events would have the same effect if NMFS sought breaching without the pressure of litigation.

Even if McDermott's bill passed, a residual of congressional influence would remain, because Congress must also appropriate funds for the actual breaching procedure.

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