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Fish to survive dam plan, agency says

By Jeff Barnard, Seattle Times Nov 1, 2007

The agency in charge of restoring Northwest salmon concluded Wednesday that the latest court-ordered plan for running federal dams in the Columbia and Snake River basins is not likely to jeopardize the survival of threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead.

"The picture that emerges is not pretty, but it is hopeful," said Bob Lohn, Northwest director of NOAA Fisheries.

The agencies that operate 24 federal hydroelectric dams and irrigation projects in Oregon, Washington and Idaho acknowledged that the projects would lead to salmon extinction. They offered a series of improvements to make up for them, as called for by the Endangered Species Act.

Those include:

Modifying some dams so juvenile salmon migrating to the ocean slide over them rather than having to dive deep through spillways.

Improving habitat in spawning streams and estuaries.

Increasing hatchery production for the most endangered of the species, Snake River sockeye.

Doing more to limit damage done by California sea lions that feed on adult salmon at Bonneville Dam and by Caspian terns that feed on young salmon in the lower Columbia.

The draft biological opinion from NOAA Fisheries looked at the proposals, considered climatic changes that have reduced the amount of food in the ocean and flows in spawning rivers, added some further mitigation and concluded that the fish not only should survive, but should move closer to recovery.

After Indian tribes and Northwest states have been consulted and a final review is produced, it will go to U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland.

He tossed out the last plan, saying it violated the Endangered Species Act. He warned he wants something that will help the fish thrive, not just survive.

Lohn noted that the biological opinion did not consider a proposal long favored by some tribes and conservation groups, breaching four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington, because only Congress can do that.

Breaching the dams would benefit only two of the species, he said, and the benefits would be marginal.

The plan for helping salmon survive the dams was prepared by the Bonneville Power Administration, which sells the power, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operate the dams and irrigation systems.

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