Army Corps of Engineers decides against breaching hydroelectric dams to protect salmon

Tuesday, December 4th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) _ After years of study, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has concluded that four giant hydroelectric dams on the Snake River should not be breached to improve endangered salmon runs.

The corps concluded Monday that the dams should instead be modified to improve the survival of native salmon and assist the fish as they make their way upstream to spawn.

``That is more cost-effective and has a minimal economic impact,'' said Nola Conway, a spokeswoman for the corps office in Walla Walla.

The corps didn't publicly release details of its recommendations. That is expected early next year when it holds public hearings on the issue.

The four dams, built in southeast Washington starting in the 1960s, provide electricity, irrigation water and navigation for barges. The 1,250 megawatts of power produced are enough for a city the size of Seattle.

However, environmentalists blame the dams for blocking the migration of salmon and steelhead to the Pacific Ocean, leaving native populations either extinct or listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

``It comes as no surprise the corps would recommend keeping the dams and continuing to spend a heck of a lot of money to retrofit them,'' said Rob Masonis, acting regional director of American Rivers in Seattle.

He said environmentalists believe that improving existing fish ladders at the dams and making other expensive alterations would do little to restore salmon runs.

Conway said the corps did identify some benefits to breaching the dams during the five-year study, notably that it would help restore the Snake River to a more natural flow.

But breaching, which likely would be tied up for years in court and technical studies, also would take the longest to implement, Conway said.

Business groups have been critical of proposals to breach the dams, and President Bush said during his campaign that he opposed their removal.

The corps studied four major plans and rejected options that called for making no changes to existing operations, breaching the dams or simply expanding programs in which juvenile salmon are barged or trucked past the dams.

The corps found that improving passage through the dams ``provides increased juvenile salmon and steelhead survival and maximizes operational flexibility.'' That could be done by changing how and when water is spilled through the dams, improving fish transportation systems and adding more fish transportation barges, the corps said.

The recommendations were sent to federal agencies that deal with the environment to get feedback on the plan before it's released to the public.