Future of Columbia-Snake System Rests on Upcoming Decisionby Phillip S. Moore
Capital Press - May 16, 2003
At stake is nothing less than the ability of the Columbia snake River System to continue as the economic engine for the Pacific Northwest, said National Marine Fisheries Service spokesman Brian Gorman.
While U.S. District Judge James Redden waits until at least May 26 to decide whether to vacate the fisheries service's biological opinion for salmon on the river system, Gorman said the future of the region's electrical power production, irrigation and inland navigation hangs in the balance.
If Redden decides to immediately vacate the 2000 Biological Opinion, "it will create a jurisdictional nightmare."
Redden overturned the Biological Opinion on May 7, ruling that it improperly relied on offsite environmental mitigation and restoration projects outside NMFS authority to restore salmon and steelhead populations listed under the Endangered Species Act. He has given the fisheries service a year to rewrite the document.
However, the judge delayed a decision on whether to leave the existing opinion in place. Instead, he has asked Earthjustice attorney Todd True and fisheries service lawyers to submit arguments for and against allowing the opinion to continue governing river operations.
If set aside, Gorman said, "there will be a spate of lawsuits all over the region from anyone who 2ants to challenge some action by the agencies involved, because they are taking fish without the sanction of the Endangered Species Act."
Gorman said that environmental organizations have already filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue over hydroelectric dam operations, which they claim are harmful to migrating fish. "Therefore, we're anxious to see what the judge does."
According to Port of Portland statistics, the Columbia Snake River System is responsible for generating 75 percent of the region's electrical power and providing water to irrigate about half of the 7.3 million acres of income-producing farmland in Idaho, Washington and Oregon.
Barges on the river system carried 12.2 million tons during 2002, including 4.9 million tons of grain and 900,000 pounds of forest products, as well as hay and hay products, animal feed, frozen potatoes and other processed food products. Approximately 45 percent of the 10 million tons of wheat exported from lower Columbia elevators arrived by barge, almost entirely from upriver terminals above McNary Dam.
Despite the importance of the river system to the region, Earthjustice's True said he "remains hopeful" that Redden will vacate the 2000 Biological Opinion, even if it means disrupting the region's economy.
"The federal agencies need to heed what the court has ruled, and come up with a real plan that will get us from point A to point B," he said.
He also said a decision to vacate the existing biological opinion could help move the region closer to considering the removal of the four Lower Snake River dams, operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
"We ought to be looking at it and looking at it seriously," he said. "However, if there's another plan that works for salmon, let's get it spelled out."
New Perce tribal attorney David Cummings agrees that the first step to saving salmon is dismantling at least the lower Snake River portion of the river system.
"Hydropower has had a serious impact on fish, and that is why the Nez Perce Tribe has supported breaching as a way to restore runs," he said. In addition to removing the Lower Snake dams, he notes, "there have been proposals to alter John Day Dam, as well.
However, Cummings, who participates in the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission along with representatives from the Warm Springs, Yakama and Umatilla tribes, said dam breaching is "just one tool in the toolbox."
the tribe also operates a hatchery and supports habitat improvements.
"It's not just about dams," he said. "Habitat needs to be restored and additional things need to happen before the fish will recover."
He said, "Judge Redden's decision tells the agencies to do what we've been telling them to do for several years, to meet the minimum standards of the Endangered Species Act."
Meanwhile, Gorman insists that the National Marine Fisheries Service, as well as the Bureau of Reclamation, Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies, already are responding and can demonstrate success.
"We're a long way from de-listing salmon stocks, but there are measurable improvements to the conditions in the Columbia Basin," he said.
"Salmon and steelhead runs are up at record levels," Gorman said. "Conditions have improved, the way hatcheries are being managed has improved, harvest practices have improved and dams have physically improve."
"While most the high number of returning fish are due to improved ocean conditions," he said, "common sense will tell you that the sacrifices made by the region are beginning to show benefits."
Responding to Redden's statement that he didn't want to still be considering litigation while the last salmon is being caught, Gorman notes the decade-long process, to this point, and said the fisheries service is not hopeful.
"This will be a long struggle before all the litigation is (concluded). Hopefully, when it is, we can get back to work trying to recover salmon stocks," he said.
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