Historic Salmon Deal Really More of the Same
by Mike Barenti
Yakima Herald-Republic, May 25, 2008
People used the word "historic" to describe an agreement signed by the federal government and a group of Northwest American Indian tribes last month. The government agreed to spend nearly $1 billion recovering endangered salmon over the next 10 years, and the tribes agreed to drop out of a lawsuit that might force the government to dismantle four hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River.
Really though, the agreement is less "historic" and more "business as usual" on Columbia River and its largest tributary, the Snake. It lets us ignore the fact that eventually we must either change how we manage the Columbia Basin or accept the extirpation of the river's wild salmon. And that's choice we've been ignoring for years.
In 2001, I kayaked 900 miles from Idaho's Redfish Lake to the Pacific Ocean, and after I finished, I wrote a book about my trip down the Salmon, Snake and Columbia rivers. But I didn't take the trip to write a book. Instead, I wanted a first-hand look at the environmental, social and political issues we are trying so desperately to avoid looking at right now. I kayaked alone for much of the trip, but I met many people along the way and listened to what those who lived near and depended on the river had to say.
Talk to enough people around the Northwest about salmon, a place where somewhere, someone always is talking about salmon, and eventually you will hear something like "we have to save the Columbia River's salmon." The truth is we don't have to save the salmon; doing so represents a social and political choice.
All those conversations I had on and off the river made it clear to me we still haven't decided to save the salmon. Sure we want to save them in the abstract, if it doesn't cost too much, if somebody else bears the burden, if it doesn't risk our neighbors' livelihoods, or our own. I know $900 million sounds like a real commitment, but by some estimates, we've already spent $9 billion over the last 20 years; $861 million in 2007 alone. If money restored salmon, we'd be walking across their backs. In the Northwest, we spend money so we don't have to make hard choices.
I hope I'm wrong and that in 10 years the Columbia's salmon are plentiful and the dams still standing. The current science says that's unlikely though, and all the lawyers and all the bureaucrats can't change that no matter how many pieces of paper they sign or how much money they spend. The projects funded by the new agreement will help salmon. It's just that they won't help enough.
The problem with the big, main-stem dams is what they do to young salmon headed to the ocean. Once, only 16 percent of yearling spring Chinook smolt made it past all eight dams while migrating from Idaho to the Pacific. Now, about half the smolt survive.
Yet this great survival jump hasn't brought the salmon back, and it seems unlikely the modest improvements promised by the new agreement will either. As a group of government scientists wrote in a 2005 paper, "substantial improvements in downstream survival appear unlikely, particularly improvements related to passage through the dams."
I doubt fixing damaged streams will recover salmon either, although I saw plenty of damaged streams on my trip. But whenever I talked to Idaho fisheries biologists, I always heard that while habitat restoration is important to salmon recovery, Idaho already has quality salmon habitat going unused. In the biologists' opinions, habitat wasn't preventing salmon recovery.
This means that in 10 years we still will be arguing over dams and salmon, that is if the agreement survives. Because the agreement leaves open the possibility for draw downs of the reservoir behind John Day Dam, which would make the river un-navigable for barge traffic, powerful farm and business groups might turn against it.
Environmental and fishing groups, Oregon and one Northwest tribe also are still challenging the government's management plan in court, so the judge overseeing the case could still do something drastic with the river. But even if U.S. District Judge James Redden takes farmers' irrigation water and orders reservoir draw downs -- court-ordered dam breaching was always unlikely -- the legal battle would continue. Besides a government appeal, there would be calls to empower the "God Squad," a euphemistic name for a panel that, under the Endangered Species Act, has the ability to allow a species to go extinct.
I don't like the courts intervening in what's essentially a political matter, and normally would chafe at a judge managing the Columbia and its salmon, but such a move by Redden might force us to confront the realities we have put off for so long. It might make us choose between the river as it is and the river the salmon need.
With the new agreement, it's more likely the Redden will go along with the government's latest management plan, ending the debate for now, which is unfortunate. Still, I understand why the tribes signed. They looked at the politics and understood support for something new and radical wasn't there; they looked at the uncertainties of a court case and opted for certainty and money for needed projects. I don't expect the tribes to act as the conscience for mainstream society.
So for the next 10 years, it will be business as usual along the Columbia. Lots of money will be spent. Some habitat will be restored. A few more salmon might migrate upstream each year, but not much will change. And then we will argue over dams, and salmon and the river. We don't have to save the Columbia's salmon, but eventually, we will have to make a decision.
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