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Don't Look to Obama to Broker Fish Fight

by Marty Trillhaase
Lewiston Tribune, September 20, 2009

Lower Monumental Lock and Dam, 42 miles up the Snake River from its confluence with the Columbia River, is under consideration for breaching. (ACOE photo) When it came to choosing between eastern Washington's dams or the Snake River's salmon and steelhead stocks, the Obama administration punted.

So someone else will decide, most likely U.S. District Judge James Redden. Whether you prefer dams or fish, you're now faced with more uncertainties.

By now, dozens of voices have weighed in on the Obama fish-recovery plan. With few exceptions, fish advocates don't like it. Dam proponents do. Little has changed from the outline Obama inherited from his predecessor, George W. Bush.

"I would say the new guys in town look a lot like the old guys in town, and I don't know if that's enough for Judge Redden or not," Lewis & Clark College environmental law professor Michael Blumm told the Oregonian.

Sure, the plan puts dam breaching - which fish advocates insist is the only viable means of restoring imperiled salmon and steelhead stocks as required by the Endangered Species Act - on the table. But it's there only as a footnote.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would start planning how to study breaching. But nothing more concrete than planning how to study breaching happens unless the fish populations decline so precipitously - falling to within 10 percent of the lowest levels recorded in three decades - that extinction looks imminent. At that point, a contingency plan would be triggered. The National Environmental Policy Act would be activated. Congress would get involved. With a process so lengthy and detailed, it's difficult to see how it would play out.

Rather than tweak Bush's plan, Obama had a genuine opportunity to broker a deal. He'd campaigned on the pledge to put science ahead of politics - which opened the door to bringing all sides together to collaborate.

Instead, the issue reverts to Redden, who earlier this year made his disdain for the Bush plan blatantly clear. Will a judge who accused the federal government of having "spent the better part of the past decade treading, and avoiding their obligations under the Endangered Species Act" now accept the same policy?

If Redden follows through on what he wrote on May 18, he could assume control of the river system. Listed among his options were spring and summer spill at the dams, reservoir draw downs or draining more water from the upper Snake River for flow augmentation, a move that would split northern and southern Idaho.

U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, may see in Obama's refusal to collaborate the chance to do so himself. Earlier this spring, Crapo memorably announced his intentions to pursue collaboration by saying dam breaching was on the table.

Either way, the fate of Idaho's fish, eastern Washington's dams and northern Idaho's navigation now shifts somewhere else. This president has missed his opportunity.

Marty Trillhaase
Don't Look to Obama to Broker Fish Fight
Lewiston Tribune, September 20, 2009

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