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Know the West

A guide to the players


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, The salmon win one.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built and operates four federal dams on the lower Snake River, and four more on the Columbia River. Fishery agencies estimate these dams and reservoirs account for about 95 percent of all human-caused mortality to Snake River salmon.

The Bonneville Power Administration markets electricity produced by the dams. Of the three federal hydro agencies, BPA is the most active politically.

The Bureau of Reclamation built and operates Grand Coulee Dam on the upper Columbia, and several dams on the upper Snake River in Idaho. These projects are located above current salmon habitat, but can provide water to boost flow levels downstream through the Army Corps projects.

The National Marine Fisheries Service implements the Endangered Species Act for marine species, which include Pacific salmon and steelhead. NMFS has authority under the act to approve or order changes in federal hydrosystem operations. Since Snake River salmon were listed in 1992, NMFS has focused its authority almost exclusively on increasing upstream water releases for salmon flows. It has not ordered structural changes at the dams themselves, and has allowed the Army Corps to intensify barging of juvenile salmon rather than promote in-river migration.

NMFS must also develop a recovery plan for Snake River salmon; the first draft from its recovery team emphasized salmon barging, while de-emphasizing "major overhaul" of the hydrosystem for explicitly economic reasons. Judge Marsh's call for just such an overhaul now casts doubt on the lawfulness of that draft. A final recovery plan is perhaps a year away.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has various authorities for salmon, but not Endangered Species Act authority. To the extent the "federal family" concept has allowed, FWS has been the primary scientific critic of juvenile salmon barging - a position in accord with the state and tribal position but at variance with its fellow federal fishery agency, NMFS.

The White House's overt involvement in Columbia Basin salmon has so far been restricted to observation of events from within the Office on Environmental Policy. There has been no attempt, at least visibly, to guide or ensure united policy by bringing all the above agencies together.

The Fish Passage Center is operated by three state fishery agencies and the Columbia River's four treaty Indian tribes. It monitors how well or badly juvenile and adult salmon are faring as they navigate the hydrosystem, and it requests specific operations at the dams (water releases, spill, etc.) to aid salmon migration. The center can only request, not order, such operations from the Army Corps.