Bumping Into the Dams, Againby Editors
The Oregonian, May 29, 2005
A judge's rejection of a salmon plan forces the Northwest
to again confront hard choices about recovering fish
On the same day last week that a federal judge rejected the government's salmon plan, 349 weary chinook crossed the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River and neared their spawning grounds. Those fish and the people of the Northwest shared something that day: A sense they had been here before.
U.S. District Judge James Redden's ruling was the third time in 12 years that courts have thrown out federal plans to protect salmon from the Columbia River hydro system. It was the umpteenth time that conservation groups, tribes and some fisheries biologists said it was time to breach four Snake River dams.
Every few years the Northwest swims back to this same place, where it bumps into the hard reality of trying to keep its hydro system and save its salmon.
Redden was right to bring us all back to this place. The Bush administration's salmon plan went in the wrong direction in two fundamental ways: One, it claimed dams were immutable parts of the landscape. Two, and most disturbing, the plan never promised the recovery of 12 threatened and endangered species of salmon, only that it would keep them from extinction.
That is not good enough. The Endangered Species Act is clear, and so is the intent of all those who care about salmon: These fish runs must be restored to healthy, harvestable numbers.
But Redden's ruling is not the clarion call for dam breaching that conservation groups and tribes would have you believe. All along, the judge has sought clarity and certainty in federal salmon recovery. Given the snarl of legal issues, the engineering challenges and the deep public and political opposition to breaching, dam removal may be the most uncertain promise of all.
Instead, Redden's ruling should take the federal and state agencies back to focusing even more strongly on all "4-Hs" -- harvest, hatcheries, habitat and hydropower production, the major factors that determine salmon survival. The dams are not the only killing fields in the Columbia Basin. Many, many fish die in the compromised habitat above the dams and the troubled estuary below them.
The region already is spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on habitat and hydropower improvements and predator control. Like all of us, Redden is looking for more certainty that these federally funded efforts will successfully recover salmon runs.
Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski said he hopes Redden's ruling will be "a great catalyst" for bringing states and federal agencies together to develop recovery measures that avoid the need to breach dams, curtail power generation and hurt the region's economy.
We hope so, too. But it won't help if the region lurches toward untried, unproven salmon measures. Conservation groups will ask Redden in a June 10 hearing to adopt their interim plan for the river that increases restrictions on the hydro system and releases water from federal reservoirs that supply water to millions of acres of farms. Those steps could cost up to $100 million in forgone power sales alone.
Redden should decline the invitation to run the Columbia system himself. Tough tradeoffs and choices certainly lie ahead. But every major step the region takes now must be a careful one.
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