- Associated Press - Saturday, March 28, 2020

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) - Some environmental groups are complaining about the teleconference format for gathering public comments on a federal government proposal to save salmon runs on the Columbia River system.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the government decided to hold teleconferences, rather than in-person public hearings, on its new proposal that downplays removing four dams on the Snake River to save the fish.

The teleconferences are cumbersome and allow for far fewer comments than the traditional public hearings, environmental groups contend.

“Twenty years ago, 800 people turned out for Spokane’s public hearing on whether the dams should be removed, with the vast majority testifying in support of restoring a free-flowing lower Snake River,” said Sam Mace, a spokeswoman for the group Save Our Wild Salmon.

“The teleconference calls clearly are not working for the public, with only 20-30 people speaking,” Mace said.

She and other environmentalists are calling on the federal government to double the comment period to 90 days and hold more hearings.

“This doesn’t feel like a meaningful way to engage the public,” said Robb Krehbiel of Defenders of Wildlife. “Lots of people have other things on their plates.”

“Public hearings give people an opportunity to look agency decision-makers in the eye and share their views, which gives them a sense they are being seen and heard,” said Rob Masonis of Trout Unlimited.

Amy Echols, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers Northwestern Division in Portland, Oregon, said people at this point should plan on the comment period ending on April 13 as planned.

“We are pleased with the fact that people are calling in,” Echols said. “It’s meeting our need to get input.”

Echols said the five hearings so far have had some 100 people listening in and 30 to 40 speaking at each one. Each person is given three minutes to talk, she said.

The last telephone hearing of the six scheduled will be Tuesday.

Echols said people are still free to submit written comments on the controversial plan.

Advocates for saving the dams say the teleconferences are social distancing at its finest.

U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., whose district includes several of the dams, said the teleconference format actually helps people living far from cities.

The long-awaited federal report was released in late February and rejected the idea of removing four hydroelectric dams on the Snake in a last-ditch effort to save threatened and endangered salmon.

The four dams on the lower Snake River are part of a vast and complex hydroelectric power system operated by the federal government in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. The four dams, built in eastern Washington between 1961 and 1975, are at the center of a years-long battle that pits the fate of two iconic Pacific Northwest species - the salmon and the killer whale - against the need for plentiful, carbon-free power for the booming region.

Environmental groups that have pushed for years for the four dams to come down immediately blasted the report. The three agencies in charge of overseeing the sprawling hydropower system recommended an alternative that doubles down on an approach that includes spilling more water over the dams when juvenile salmon are migrating - a tactic already being used.

The towering dams have proven disastrous for salmon that struggle to navigate past them on their way to and from the Pacific Ocean. Salmon are rare in that they hatch in freshwater streams, then make their way hundreds of miles to the ocean, where they spend years before finding their way back to mate, lay eggs and die.

Snake River sockeye were the first species in the Columbia River Basin listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1991. Now, 13 salmon runs are listed as federally endangered or threatened. Four of those runs return to the Snake River.

On the way to the ocean, juvenile salmon can get chewed up in the dams’ turbines. The adults returning from the ocean must navigate fish ladders - concrete chutes that bypass the dams - but they can become bottle-necked before reaching them and get picked off by predators.

Scientists also warn that southern resident orcas are starving to death because of a dearth of the chinook salmon that are their primary food source.

The Pacific Northwest population of orcas - also called killer whales - was placed on the endangered species list in 2005.

Opponents of dam removal say they want salmon to flourish, but they aren’t sure breaching four major hydroelectric dams will help - and it could instead damage the regional economy and the stability of the power supply.

U.S. District Judge Michael Simon ordered the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration to revisit the impact of the hydroelectric system in 2016 while overseeing litigation over salmon.

After the public comment period ends, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will analyze the proposal to determine if it does enough to protect salmon and orcas - a process that should be completed by June.

A final report is expected in September.

“An extension of the comment period is absolutely necessary,” Mace said. “Northwest people care deeply about salmon. They deserve more than 45 days and poorly timed conference calls to weigh in on the future of our wild salmon and orca.”

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