PORTLAND, OREGON–For years the Army Corps of Engineers has been chewing over the best way to bring back endangered populations of salmon and steelhead along the Snake River. The most controversial proposal –embraced by environmentalists and bitterly resisted by many local residents–is to breach four hydropower dams on the Snake River, a tributary of the Columbia River in Idaho and Washington state. At a press conference here on 17 December, the corps announced, to the dismay of both sides, that it was delaying a decision until summer.
Describing the evidence as “not conclusive,” Brigadier General Carl Strock, commander of the corps’s Northwestern Division, argued that the economic and social impacts of breaching the dams are so enormous that the corps needs “additional regional dialogue and scientific information” to “arrive at a preferred alternative.” As a basis for this discussion, the corps has released its draft environmental impact statement: megabytes upon megabytes on everything from salmon growth rates to analyses of tribal treaties ( www.nwd.usace.army.mil ).
The delay does not sit well with tribes and environmental groups. Fanning their displeasure, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) issued a report on the same day asserting that dam breaching “would provide many more benefits to fish and wildlife” than would other options. The “biological conclusion is a no-brainer,” says FWS regional administrator Anne Badgley. “A free-flowing river is better than a dammed river.”
However, the corps will turn first for advice not to FWS, but to another agency–the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)–which under the Endangered Species Act has the legal mandate to protect endangered migratory fish throughout the Columbia River Basin. Unsatisfied by the prospect of planning tributary by tributary, the NMFS wants to incorporate the recovery of Snake River fish into a basinwide effort. For that reason, says NMFS regional administrator Will Stelle, the agency is examining a “much more complicated” subject than Snake dams versus no Snake dams: the effects on endangered fish throughout the region of habitat degradation, hatcheries, and fishing, in addition to hydropower.
The examination is occurring through a broad new NMFS program called the Cumulative Risk Initiative. CRI–which attempts to integrate the factors determining the species’ risk of extinction into a model of population growth–supersedes an effort known as the Plan for Analyzing and Testing Hypotheses, or PATH (Science, 23 April, p. 574 ). PATH was intended to be the sole scientific basis for a Snake River decision, until NMFS concluded that independent scientists would get lost in PATH’s complexity.
Using the more transparent CRI model, Stelle says, NMFS scientists have finished an analysis of improvements that might help the Snake River salmon recover. The next step, he says, is to rate each option’s feasibility. If what’s best for the salmon were the sole criterion for decision-making, Stelle admits, “we should stop all irrigation, terminate all development and inriver uses, take out the dams, and probably move east.” But economic and social factors–not just what’s best for the salmon–must be considered, NMFS recognizes.
Next summer, after the CRI is finished, the corps will identify its “preferred alternative” in a revised draft environmental statement. The final version is expected late in 2000. If the corps endorses dam breaching, the matter will go to Congress for a final decision–suggesting that the resolution on the fate of these controversial fish is a long way off.