For Wild Salmon,
by Michael Blumm
The Obama administration's recent salmon plan for the Columbia and Snake Rivers largely ratified the Bush administration's plan and disappointed salmon advocates who had hoped for more effective action to restore the endangered fish runs. Instead, the plan promises business as usual in the operation of Columbia Basin dams. "Meet the new boss; same as the old boss."
However disappointing to salmon advocates, this commitment to the status quo was hardly surprising. In fact, endorsement of the Bush plan was forshawdowed when leadership of the Bonneville Power Administration was left intact by Obama. Over the last 30 years, BPA has sucessfully resisted substantial changes in dam operations, although, as the agency is quick to declare, it spends considerable sums each year on salmon. The total bill is now somewhere in excess of $8 billon, depending on who is counting.
All that money has been unable to reverse the decline of Columbia Basin wild salmon because the root cause of the salmon's problems -- the operation of the hydroelectric system -- remains fundamentally unchanged. This, despite the 1980 Northwest Power Act's promise that fish and wildlife would be "co-equal" with hydropower and a decade-and-a-half of plans under the Endangered Species Act aimed at recovering endangered salmon runs.
The Obama administration now promises more of the same: lots of studies, habitat work in the estuary, promised improvements in hatcheries. This amounts to the same song, second verse. True, some of the studies will monitor climate change, which the Bush administration pretended wasn't underway. And there will be contingency planning if the fish runs "decline significantly," triggering a multiyear look at removing the four lower Snake River dams, which studies a decade ago indicated was economically feasible and biologically preferred. Under the Obama plan, it seems that three decades of ineffective action will turn into four.
Differences between the two plans are mere window dressing. No wonder the BPA administrator, along with the heads of the other federal agencies quickly inundated op-ed pages throughout the Northwest, urging public support for the new plan and calling for an end to the litigation in which they have been unable to meet the requirements of the ESA.
Ending the litigation would be the worst thing for salmon. Federal Judge James Redden has ordered one of the few operational changes in recent years that has benefitted salmon: spills of water to facilitate fish passage at the dams. He has done so over the objections of all the federal power agencies, even though the independent scientists at Fish Passage Center have confirmed the benefits of spills.
BPA has tried to make the ESA litigation go away by weilding its economic clout: paying nearly $1 billion over the next decade for the support of all but one of the tribes with fishing rights on the river. And the Obama administration's plan includes $40 million for the support of the state of Washington, which might be accused of selling out on the cheap. But so far the Nez Perce Tribe and Oregon have refused to be bought off and remain in the litigation on the side of fish.
These payoffs should not deceive the public: They only raise the cost of pursuing an ineffective salmon plan. The $8 billion price tag could double by the time Obama leaves office.
The salmon's apparent only remaining hope is that the court will uphold the requirements of the ESA and require the federal government to take meaningful and effective steps now -- such as increased spill and serious attention to increased river flows and dam breaching -- to recover the fish that are so central to the history, culture and economy of the Northwest.
That would be change you could believe in.
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