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Deja Vu on the Columbia

by Paul VanDevelder, guest opinion
The Oregonian, July 25, 2009

In defense of the wild

When the Los Angeles Times published my piece on July 5 regarding Portland's federal district Judge James Redden and his pending decision on dams and salmon, never did my editors and I imagine that we would find ourselves defending the notion of free-flowing rivers as a radical approach to salmon recovery.

Alas, responses to that piece by Bonneville Power Administration scribes have made the point for us ("It's easy to forget most of region agrees on protection," July 19). Their conclusion, in so many words, is quite simple: free-flowing rivers are an aberration of nature.

Don't laugh. This was the very argument made by the Bush administration just four years ago when it tried to excise dam removal from the salmon recovery plan mandated by the Endangered Species Act. Administration officials explained that dams were a natural feature of the environment and, therefore, their removal was off limits. Between heavy sighs, Judge Redden characterized the Bush plan as arrogant and cynical. One sensed that the judge was mincing words. Then he threw it out.

For me, there's a "deja vu all over again" aspect to this story. I spent 10 years researching my book, "Coyote Warrior," which chronicles, among other things, the extralegal adventures of two other federal agencies, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, on the Missouri River.

The first agency was in the business of draining swamps, and the second was in the business of making swamps -- a marriage arranged by the devil. In 1944, the two agencies got together and built a plan for the entire Missouri River that featured a hundred dams. The obfuscation, disinformation, graft, and outright deception and suppressed science they foisted on the American public over the next decade prompted the Hoover Commission in 1949 to call for the dismantling of both.

To persuade the public to go along with it, Congress promised to irrigate 4 million acres of dryland farms in the midwest. Newspapers up and down the Missouri applauded the Pick-Sloan Plan as a prelude to the second coming. This bone-dry land would now be turned into a new Eden. Just think of it, exclaimed the newspapers. People will rush into the region.

They were all, individually and collectively, dead wrong. The dams were built. The region has been losing population for 50 years. Sixty years later, farmers are still waiting for the first drop of water. Precious water is diverted downriver to keep barges floating between Sioux City, Iowa, and St. Louis. Way back when, agency ciphers masquerading as scientists had repeatedly reassured Congress that the Missouri's well-known siltation problems were overblown. And here's the cherry they carefully set on top: All the land that would be lost beneath a thousand miles of lakes -- hundreds of thousands of acres of the finest farmland in America --were lands owned by Indians. Not one white town would be adversely affected.

Congress, and the nation, took the bait. They ignored Gov. Leslie Miller's report to Congress (for the Hoover Commission) stating that the Pick-Sloan Plan was the most "cockeyed, extravagant, and irresponsible" public works project in the nation's history. In 1963, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch finally pulled the mask off the agencies' colossal ruse: "This would be a good time for the governors and senators and representatives of the Missouri Valley states to decide whether they want to be held liable for the consequences of the most gigantic boondoggle in American history."

Thirty years later, Congress was so ashamed of its earlier duping by the agencies that in 1992 it finally admitted that the taking of all of those Indian lands was both unconstitutional and morally reprehensible.

How could this have happened? How can we be letting it happen again on the Columbia and the Snake? I think the answer to that question is deceptively simple. Newspaper flacks and hacks, agency lawyers, citizens, and stakeholders, think principally about their self-interests in very short time frames defined by very ephemeral economic issues. The river evolves, and all the creatures that depend on its free-flowing waters, think in terms of eons.

Today, the BPA is the new Bureau of Reclamation. On the Columbia and the Snake (surprise, surprise!), this agency is in collusion with the Army Corps of Engineers. To gauge the narcissistic pathology that runs through both of these agencies, consider that one BPA apologist recently argued that since fish counts on the Snake River didn't drop after the dams were built, then dams could not have been a factor in the salmons' demise.

Preposterous statements like this one were made on the Missouri 50 and 60 years ago. In fact, the graph showing the decline of Snake River salmon after the dams were built looks like the glide path of 10 BPA lawyers thrown out of an airplane from 10,000 feet.

Don't take my word for it. Unbeknownst to me and my editors, The New York Times had planned to run an editorial on dams the day before ours went out on the wires. Under the headline "10 Years, 430 dams," editors recounted the remarkable recovery of fish in rivers behind 430 dams removed in the United States in the past 10 years.

The habitual obfuscation and misinformation generated by agency scribes begs me to repeat my central point: The fish cannot come to court to make their own case. They can only make their case through science, and the science has shown -- beyond any doubt -- that dams have hastened the extinction trajectory of anadramous fish.

To his credit, Judge Redden has had the spine and the resolve to give that science equal time in his courtroom. The science is clear. Abundantly clear. As The New York Times concluded, the federal government's successful recovery of salmon stocks along the Atlantic seaboard by removing dams "has raised the hopes that it may now take aggressive -- if politically risky -- steps to protect salmon on the West Coast by ordering the removal of four big dams on the Lower Snake River. This page has recommended such a move, which two previous administrations have ducked. It now seems within the realm of possibility."

In the end we all bump up against one immutable and inscrutable truth: There are 7 billion funerals scheduled for the next 70-odd years, one for each of us. And the current plan is to turn the planet over to 9 billion people who aren't here yet. We ask much of them -- far more, it seems, than we have dared to ask of ourselves.

Related Pages:
Saving the Columbia and Snake River Salmon by Paul VanDevelder, Los Angeles Times, 7/6/9
The Northwest Salmon Debate by Greg Delwiche, The Oregonian, 7/2/9

Paul VanDevelder is the author of "Savages and Scoundrels" and "Coyote Warrior, One Man, Three Tribes, and the Trial that Forged a Nation."
Deja Vu on the Columbia
The Oregonian, July 23, 2009

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