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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

White House Says Dams Will Stay

Air Date: Week of July 21, 2000

Host Diane Toomey talks with Seattle Post Intelligence reporter Robert McClure about the Clinton administration’s decision to oppose, at least for now, the removal of four dams on the Lower Snake River in the Pacific Northwest.

Transcript

TOOMEY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey, sitting in for Steve Curwood. Breaching dams has long been the Holy Grail for many people working to restore and maintain salmon runs in the rivers of the Pacific Northwest. Most say the fish won't survive if the dams remain. The Clinton administration was looking at the prospect of tearing down four dams on the Lower Snake River in Washington State. But now it says it will hold off on making a decision for at least another five years. Joining me is Robert McClure, environmental reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Robert, now that removing the dams is off the table, what's the administration's plan to help restore the salmon runs?

McCLURE: One of the most important, and what will probably prove to be one of the most controversial, is the idea of keeping more water in the tributaries and in the main rivers, to help young fish get to sea faster. And by keeping the flow higher, you'll find that the water temperatures will stay cooler. And then there are ancillary measures that are bound to be proposed, such as fencing tributary streams so the cows don't get in and ruin the spawning beds. Measures will be proposed to control pollution and control runoff, and those are not easy things to do and also will probably be enormously expensive.

TOOMEY: The dam issue has bled into presidential election politics. George W. Bush supports keeping the dams in place. Al Gore has maintained a rather deafening silence on the issue. What's behind the Clinton administration's timing of this decision?

McCLURE: Well, they had to issue a decision now, and, in fact, were supposed to have issued one six months ago. And yet, Gore clearly doesn't want to come down strongly in favor of breaching the dams or strongly in favor of not breaching the dams. He's trying to have it both ways. I think that the Clinton administration saw that trying to breach the dams and do all the other things that everyone acknowledges are going to be necessary was just too much for them to take on, politically. And they thought that it would be a better strategy to continue with some of the engineering plans, but shift the public focus away from this "to breach or not to breach" question. And I think that's what lies behind their strategy, getting away from the idea that there's one way to save the salmon.

TOOMEY: Robert, what has the reaction been to this announcement in the Northwest?

McCLURE: Well, environmentalists are really angry. They feel like they've gotten hosed. The Indians are similarly very angry, and the big question there is whether the Indian tribes, which are entitled to a certain amount of the salmon catch under treaty rights, whether they'll go to court to sue over this. Also, the people who use the Snake River, which would be irrigators as well as farmers who move their goods to market on barges on that river and others, they're angry as well because they wanted this option taken completely off the table. And the Clinton administration has said that they will continue with engineering plans in case this does eventually need to be done.

TOOMEY: Do the environmentalists say that five or eight years down the road for breaching these dams, if they decide that's what's necessary, is that going to be too late for these salmon runs?

McCLURE: That's exactly what the environmentalists say, and the scientists for the National Marine Fisheries Service will tell you that predicting extinction is a pretty tricky thing. But they have done some analyses that they believe, at least, give them more time than eight to ten years.

TOOMEY: Robert McClure is the environmental reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Robert, thanks for joining us today.

McCLURE: It's been a pleasure.

 

 

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