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The Pressure's Back On to Save the Salmon

by Kate Riley, Times editorial columnist
Seattle Times, May 19, 2003

When the Clinton administration released its salmon-restoration plan for the Columbia River Basin in 2000, the controversial Snake River dams were left standing, at least for 10 years.

By then, having lived for 12 years at the confluence of the Snake and Columbia rivers ground zero in a national fight over endangered Northwest salmon vs. dams I felt both relief and concern. Relief because it gave rural areas so dependent on the four lower Snake River dams time to save them; and concern that the sense of urgency for restoring the endangered runs in the rivers would wane.

I shouldn't have been either, judging from a federal judge's ruling earlier this month, that reopens the federal plan, possibly for some major tinkering. By the end of next month, U.S. District Judge James A. Redden will decide whether to overturn the federal plan and start over.

For the Mid-Columbia, breaching the lower Snake River dams to save salmon is far more than an intellectual exercise. It would mean the loss of thousands of jobs and the loss of bargeways that annually haul millions of tons of farm commodities and other goods. It also would have stopped the dams' generation of enough electricity to power Seattle juice that, during the energy crisis, was like gold, staving off Northwest brownouts.

Scads of federal and private studies into the breaching question, environmentalists' full-page ads in the New York Times and even some inappropriate Clinton administration tinkering with an Army Corps of Engineers conclusion were perceived as an all-out assault by idealistic, urban environmentalists who put fish before people. The region had few advocates among statewide officials, many Democrats beholden to environmental constituencies.

The late 1990s was a lonely and despairing time for the Mid-Columbia. So farmers joined with chamber leaders, bankers joined with barge operators, and Eastern Washington's congressional members joined with utility officials to pitch one big fit not as polished as the well-funded environmental groups, but as passionate.

Both sides said follow the science, then produced scientists who supported their conclusions. But both blurred the path they urged with inflammatory rhetoric and political maneuvering. In the end, it was the government scientists, with perhaps a measure of political pragmatism, that ruled the day.

The NOAA Fisheries' 2000 biological opinion or the bi-op, as it's called did not save the four Snake hydropower dams, but rather granted a reprieve: Save the salmon to keep the dams. There would be time to screen irrigation canals, restore habitats in the mainstems and tributaries, shoo fish-eating Caspian terns downriver, improve hatcheries and even the dams' fish-crunching turbines.

This was a chance for a rural economy to save itself with help from state and federal agencies vested in their success.

I worried the bi-op would insulate the region too much from fierce political pressure, fostering a complacency that could derail meaningful salmon recovery made trickier by the myriad factors that affect the survival of fish that go from the rivers to the ocean and back again. Although heartened that salmon were returning to the rivers in stronger numbers, my heart sank as dam advocates cited the returns as evidence dams weren't the problem.

That's not true. They are unambiguously part of the problem. The question remains whether the damage can be mitigated.

Fast-forward to earlier this month when Judge Redden ruled in an environmentalists' lawsuit that NOAA Fisheries had based the 2000 bi-op on projects not adequately vetted under Endangered Species Act standards. My heart sank again as environmentalists hailed the ruling as the righteous beginning of the end for the dams.

That's not quite true, either. Redden is asking NOAA-Fisheries to prove all the projects, on which the bi-op's conclusions are based, meet the standards established by the Endangered Species Act.

Friday, Redden asked for briefs on whether he should vacate the bi-op, which would have repercussions for the 40 percent of Northwest power generated by the two rivers' 14 federal dams. He also ruled that NOAA Fisheries has a year to fix where the plan falls short.

The problem is partly dams, sure, but it's also eroding river habitat, agricultural and industrial practices, predators and, something beyond the control of landlubbers, ocean conditions.

The Clinton administration-produced bi-op might be valid or at least come close. Redden is asking the dams-friendly Bush administration to prove it or fix it a reasonable demand when so much is at stake.

The pressure is back on to save the dams, sure. But, more importantly, the pressure is back on to save salmon throughout their life cycle.

That can't be a bad thing.

Kate Riley, Times editorial columnist
The Pressure's Back On to Save the Salmon
Seattle Times, May 19, 2003

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