We Can End the Columbia Basin Salmon Wars
by John Kitzhaber
If you look only at the courtroom record, environmentalists are winning the war to save salmon in the Northwest. A year ago, U.S. District Judge James Redden sent the federal plan for managing the Columbia hydro system back to the drawing board -- marking the fourth time in the past 20 years that federal agencies have failed to present a defensible program for saving salmon.
But wins in court don't keep our salmon and steelhead from going extinct. At almost the same time as Judge Redden's decision, the federal government released its most recent review of wild salmon in the Northwest. That review found that many runs remain at high risk of extinction and that the level of risk is not changing for most species. Federal agencies, including the Bonneville Power Administration, are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to stem the decline, but they are losing in court and they are losing in our rivers and streams.
The most recent court ruling gives the BPA and other federal agencies until 2014 to deliver a revised fisheries plan. That's less than 18 months away. So far, BPA and the agencies have spent their time working to polish the 2010 plan that the court rejected.
This is not to say that there is nothing positive happening under the 2010 plan. Working with the states and tribes in the region, the BPA and other agencies are carrying out projects to improve habitat. In addition, as a result of court orders, the BPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are spilling water over Columbia River dams to move fish downriver during important out-migration periods.
These positive steps have laid a foundation on which we can build -- to resolve both the 20-year battle in the courts and, more important, to begin lowering the extinction risk for salmon. The state of Oregon is ready to come to the table with other key parties and work toward a lasting agreement that avoids litigation and that provides a stable environmental and economic foundation for our hydro system, one where thriving salmon runs coexist with reliable and affordable electric power.
We believe leaders in the region are ready and willing to support a broader discussion of steps that can be taken to manage our hydro system in ways that benefit salmon, power and transportation interests, and that could avoid another round of costly litigation and uncertainty. But we need the BPA, the corps and the Bureau of Reclamation to step up to the table as well.
Last weekend marked the 75th anniversary of the Bonneville Power Administration. The BPA's vision is to be a national leader in environmental stewardship, and its core values include collaboration. What better way to celebrate the BPA's 75th anniversary than for it to join with Oregon and others, roll up our collective sleeves and craft a way to operate our hydroelectric system that delivers reliable, clean and affordable power while assuring that our salmon heritage and the jobs that are tied to it also thrive.
By gathering the parties around a table, and working in good faith to reach common ground on a fisheries plan that is supported by sound science, we can come to the 2014 deadline with a historic agreement that ends the 20-year chapter of salmon wars in the Columbia basin, an agreement that protects fish while maintaining our supply of clean and affordable energy.
I don't want to imply this will be easy. It will require everyone to give a little.
But the time to try to solve our differences is now. We have strong science showing the positive results from changes to how we operate the hydro system. We have significant investments being made in habitat restoration -- investments that will be important as they take effect over the long term. And we have a region that's making huge strides in clean, renewable energy and conservation, which changes and broadens our energy portfolio and may give us more flexibility than we have had in the past.
We are a region with an identity and a fate inextricably bound to that of our salmon and steelhead. We know where 20 years of litigation has gotten us: 13 ESA-listed species of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia-Snake basin, many with a continued high risk of extinction; uncertainty for businesses; and significant costs for BPA.
We can do better if, over the next year, our region can work out how to manage our Columbia as a river rather than simply preparing for yet another visit to the courtroom.
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