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Seattle City Council passes resolution in support of dam breaching

SEATTLE - Tribes, environmentalists and now the city of Seattle are standing up and speaking out against salmon recovery recommendations outlined in the "Draft Basin-Wide Salmon Recovery Strategy" released by the federal caucus in late July.

Tribal representatives from the Umatilla, Yakama, Warm Springs, Colville and Nez Perce tribes were uniformly dismayed by the draft's lack of punch: it's continued emphasis on current mitigation efforts such as habitat restoration, lengthy time frames for yet further impact studies, and, most importantly, the draft's refusal to recommend the breaching of four lower Snake River dams.

Most salmon recovery studies, including many performed for the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department, indicate that breaching, in conjunction with stepped-up habitat restoration and other mitigation efforts, offers the best chance for the survival of Snake River steelhead and chinook salmon.

But caution, the inertia of the status quo, an election year and commercial interests have all combined to influence the caucus into a "wait and see" non-decision about dam removal. While the draft plan recommends dam removal as a last resort starting in 2008, the plan's timelines predict possible extinction of certain salmon species starting in the same year.

In a surprise but welcome move, the Seattle City Council recently passed a unanimous resolution in support of breaching the four lower Snake River dams. The resolution, initiated by City Councilwoman Heidi Wills, endorsed breaching while promoting the use of renewable energy resources and energy conservation to replace the hydroelectric power currently generated at those dams.

"The mere fact that they did it says that other people out here realize it would be a very positive move," says Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe. "It's great that we're creating more and more allies for that agenda. ... it's very good reasoning that they would pursue a decision that balances the needs of the community, including power needs, with the habitat and an important resource such as the fisheries."

Rob Masonis, American Rivers Northwest conservation director, also applauded the resolution, saying it was a signal that at long last the Northwest region is willing to do what it takes to avoid the unnecessary extinction of salmon.

"We have an enormous amount of untapped energy conservation potential in the region," says Masonis. "The region has not ... moved forward aggressively trying to take advantage of that.

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"There needs to be incentives developed and a planning structure implemented that encourages that. There's no reason we should be sacrificing our salmon runs in the name of energy needs when in fact we have not responsibly pursued available technologies that would enable us to have our rivers and clean air and meet our energy needs."

The Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams, which produce an average of 1,200 megawatts of energy per year, are not major hydroelectric dams. They are "flow of river" dams used primarily to regulate the lower 140 mile stretch of the Snake River for navigational purposes. The Bonneville Power Administration says the four dams, which are owned and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, produce approximately 5 percent of the power needed throughout the Northwest.

The Seattle City Council, which sets policy for the largest public utility in the Northwest, Seattle City Light, indicated that studies showed the dismantling of the four dams would increase Seattle residential electricity bills by approximately $1 per month.

But proponents of retaining the dams, such as Dick Watson, director of the power division of the Northwest Power Planning Council, maintain the 5 percent figure is misleading. He says the four dams are vital to maintaining stable electrical supply to utilities and that there is little or no "pad" in hydropower energy in the region.

"Right now we think we're pretty close to the edge as it is," Watson says . "Based upon the system we have in operation today, we find ourselves at a level where I don't think anybody would judge our power supply to that adequate. Take a bite out of it and its going to be even less adequate."

Watson says the four dams are capable of generating up to 3,000 megawatts in an hour, and are regularly used to meet peak demand levels that rise and fall over the course of the day as people use electricity, early morning and early evening being the most crucial times. Watson says the existing system is up to meeting demands, barring unforeseen conditions like a combination of exceptionally hot or cold weather that would put a strain on the system as people run air-conditioners and heating systems. Extreme weather combined with lessened river flows and usual power demands could "brown-out" sections of the power system. And that, says Watson, is unacceptable.

"The power system is expected to provide a certain level of reliability," he says. "And in order to do that it has to have access to the power generating resources."

As both sides examine the pros and cons of the situation, one thing is certain, there is very little time to be wasted in debate. Conservation measures and renewable energy sources to take up the slack if the dams are breached will take time to implement. And time is the one thing the wild runs of Snake River salmon don't have.

Tribes and conservationists agree, only decisive measures such as the resolution passed by the Seattle City Council can make a difference. And the time for them is now.