Court Helps Fishby Columbian Editorial Writers
The Columbian, August 18, 2004
Because salmon often turn into river-kill when pushed through turbines, spill water is thought to be one of our greatest countermeasures against endangered and threatened fish runs on dammed rivers. That is why Friday's decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is so encouraging. It backed a lower court decision that requires continued water release at dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers to aid migrating salmon.
The case made by the Army Corps of Engineers and Bonneville Power Administration to reduce the amount of water released by at least 39 percent this summer was compelling only in dollar signs. Doing so would have gathered an estimated $20 million to $31 million in additional revenue. That's because more water going through turbines means the generation of more power, which means more electricity can be sold to other markets, bringing reduced energy prices to the Northwest.
As tempting as cheaper power rates are, however, we must keep the water flowing. We have taken advantage of nature enough already in the cause of cheap hydropower. It doesn't appear that the dams that threaten species on the Columbia and Snake Rivers will ever be breached; the Bush administration and others are suggesting fish counters to treat hatchery fish and wild salmon the same; and the nation is not making significant progress in finding, utilizing or subsidizing alternative energy sources, such as wind power, that allow us to live in nature less intrusively.
The least we can do is spill the water that improves chances for fish survival in current river conditions.
Fish are important to the Northwest to sustain a delicate ecosystem. They are an excellent investment in other ways, too. Our wildlife, scenic areas and recreational opportunities attract tourist dollars and companies that are looking for sites that employees will gravitate toward willingly.
While estimates vary on how many fish endangered and otherwise will be saved as a result of the court decision, we know that fish fare better with spill water than without it.
That's all we should need to know. Federal law, specifically the Endangered Species Act, requires protection of wildlife. And while less-costly mitigation efforts than spill water would be fine, if effective, the plan proposed in lieu of spill water was insufficient to make the tradeoff. In fact, last July, U.S. District Court Judge James Redden called the alternate mitigation plan "arbitrary and capricious." He also said because we are working from a "deficit situation" in meeting salmon standards, "we should not be cutting back on an effective mitigation tool."
In putting long-term environmental health above short-term economic gain, the court system got it right. Our region is the better for it.
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