The Salmon Deal Redden Can't Deliver
by Marty Trillhaase
Lewiston Tribune, December 3, 2009
It sure sounded like U.S. District Court Judge James Redden was prepared to sign off on the federal government's latest plan to recover salmon and steelhead without breaching four dams on the lower Snake River.
For advocates of those dams within north central Idaho and eastern Washington, that would be good news.
When it comes to litigation, however, you can't be sure. This lawsuit and the various fish recovery plans - called biological opinions or biops - have been in dispute for nearly 15 years. Redden may have told his courtroom last week, "With a little more work, we may have a biop" that will satisfy the Endangered Species Act.
But what does that mean?
Does the judge intend to insist more water is spilled over the dams to aid young fish in their migration to the ocean? More spill translates into less hydroelectric power generation.
Will Redden draw on more water from Montana, eastern Idaho's irrigation water from the upper Snake River or even more from Dworshak Reservoir to aid in fish migration?
The Obama administration tweaked an earlier fish recovery plan from the George W. Bush administration by designating dam breaching as a distant possibility. The new plan would have the government begin planning for breaching should fish populations plummet to the near- extinction levels last seen in the mid 1990s. What if Redden suggests dam breaching be studied immediately so that the plans are available more readily? Remember, while fish advocates were disheartened by the Obama treatment of breaching, some defenders of the dams thought the White House had gone too far by even resorting to the dam breaching terminology.
What happens after Redden supposedly closes this chapter of fish recovery studies and litigation? Will that end it? Or would environmentalists take their efforts to the appellate court?
Enter Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho. Earlier this year, Crapo waded into the dispute, pledging to launch the same collaborative process that produced the Idaho Owyhee wilderness and is being employed within the Clearwater Basin Collaborative.
At the time, Redden had just issued a letter suggesting he had lost patience with the federal fish recovery plan and had urged the new Obama White House to move forward. Crapo famously said everything - including dam breaching - would be on the table for discussion.
A final ruling from Redden would give Crapo the signal he needs to launch negotiations.
Regardless of whether one side walks out of Redden's courtroom ahead, all have an incentive to work with Crapo toward a workable compromise. Courtrooms are good at proclaiming a lawsuit's winners and losers. They can't make people work together.
All of the parties involved - irrigators, fish enthusiasts, navigators and even the broader economy of this region - have to hammer out a solution they may dislike in order to avoid one they truly despise or even fear.
What they need is the one thing no judge can provide.
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