The Breaching Optionby Editors
Register-Guard, April 13, 2007
Four years ago, President Bush stood on one of the Snake River dams and declared that they would never be breached - and that the Northwest's endangered salmon runs could recover despite the presence of dams on the river.
Time will tell. And so will the federal courts.
In a scathing and richly deserved rebuke, a federal appeals court Monday rejected the Bush administration's 2004 plan for making Columbia Basin hydroelectric dams safe for salmon. The three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld orders by U.S.
District Judge James Redden requiring the dams to sacrifice power production to help juvenile salmon migrating to the ocean.
Since 1993, the courts have struck down three separate federal plans, known as biological opinions, to balance endangered salmon against power production from the Columbia basin dams. The latest ruling dealt with a 2004 Bush administration plan that was based on the ludicrous premise that the dams are permanent fixtures of the ecosystem and therefore not subject to removal to help salmon. The plan applied the same argument to basic dam operations, including irrigation, flood control and power generation.
The judges were appropriately brutal in their assessment of this plan, dismissing it as "analytical sleight of hand" that claims to help salmon but fails to deliver. "Under this approach, a listed species could be gradually destroyed, so long as each step on the path to destruction is sufficiently modest," Judge Sydney Thomas wrote.
Under court order, federal agencies must offer a new strategy next month - the fourth by this and previous administrations. The stakes could hardly be higher. Redden, a judge not given to idle threats, has made it clear that failure to produce a plan that adequately protects salmon could prompt him to order the breaching of the four hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River in Eastern Washington.
On Tuesday, the four agencies in charge of restoring salmon populations - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, the Bonneville Power Administration, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers - pledged to produce a workable plan to restore the 13 species of salmon and steelhead that are listed as threatened or endangered. Given their abysmal track record, it's hard to be optimistic that the agencies will deliver on that promise.
As for the Bush administration, it's far more interested in dismantling the Endangered Species Act than it is in making the financial and political commitment necessary to save salmon from extinction. Consider the recent U.S. Fish & Wildlife draft proposal that would give the BPA, not the federal courts, the final say on whether Columbia Basin dams conflict with salmon survival.
Salmon runs have dwindled gradually for the past 150 years as a result of mining and logging in vulnerable headwaters, grazing, irrigation, farming, development and ocean fishing. But it was the construction of the dams in the 1960s and 1970s, in particular those along the Snake, that have pushed Columbia Basin salmon to the brink.
This week's ruling leaves the door open to all options, including the one President Bush has sworn will never happen - removal of the Snake River dams.
Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling.
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