2/9/2000 -- -- The science used in federal studies of proposals to breach four Snake River dams to save salmon from extinction was either flawed or right on the mark, fishermen, conservationists, farmers and others told a hearing Tuesday.
About 300 people attended an afternoon session and more than 70 signed up to speak to representatives of nine federal agencies involved in efforts to restore Columbia River Basin fish runs. An evening session was scheduled as well.
The federal agencies have scheduled 11 more meetings around the Pacific Northwest and Alaska over the next month. The meetings are to gather public comments on a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' draft environmental impact study of lower Snake River juvenile salmon and the government's "All-H Paper" of proposed changes in habitat, harvest, hatcheries and hydroelectric operations.
Each study contains an option of removing earthen portions of four hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River between Pasco in Washington state and Lewiston, Idaho.
The theory is that a more natural flow of the river will help restore depleted stocks of Pacific salmon and steelhead, but breaching the dams would also end barging to Lewiston, Idaho, and reduce the amount of electricity sold by the Bonneville Power Administration.
Comments at Tuesday's afternoon session were split between those who favor dam breaching and those who oppose it.
Some speakers on both sides criticized the science behind the federal studies, particularly mathematical models used to draw conclusions about species extinction.
The so-called PATH analysis used by the corps concluded breaching represents the least risk to fish over the long run. An analysis used in the All-H Paper concluded breaching would be more beneficial for some species than for others.
Breaching opponents, such as the Washington Association of Grain Growers, said the region would lose an estimated $246 million a year without the dams, as well as a net loss of 700 jobs.
"I say leave these dams alone," Whitman County Commissioner Les Wiggin said. "They're the greatest asset we have."
But sports fishing groups, conservationists and others said breaching represents the best way to bring back healthy populations of salmon and steelhead, as well as to honor treaties with Indian tribes.
Bob Dunnagan, Trout Unlimited Idaho president, said he no longer fishes for salmon or steelhead in the Columbia Basin because stocks have fallen so low. The government's scientific and economic studies support breaching, he said.
Jim Bradford, a retired Potlatch employee who said he is a member of several Idaho conservation organizations, said federal studies have concluded that breaching is the best option for saving fish.
"We're out of time. We have to act now, before the fish disappear," he said.
Brig. Gen. Carl Strock, the corp's Northwest Region commander, said comments from the meetings will be incorporated into the agency's next environmental impact study.
Once a decision is made on a preferred course of action, the revised report will be the subject of another round of public hearings before the study results are finalized next January or February, he said.
"We're much closer to a real substantial beginning than we ever have been," Strock said of the corps' $20 million, six-year study.
Any fish restoration strategy would need the blessing and funding of Congress, which authorized the four Lower Snake River dams for power production, irrigation, recreation and other uses, Strock said.
Another meeting was scheduled for Thursday in Clarkston, Wash., where opponents of dam breaching are expected to turn out in large numbers. Lewiston, Idaho, across the Snake River from Clarkston, is an inland seaport because barges are able to navigate the river through locks on the dams. Should the government decide to remove the earthen portions of the four dams, the concrete locks, spillways and powerhouses would remain high and dry beside a freeflowing river.