Common Ground can Preserve
by Gordon Smith
The Columbia and Snake Rivers and their tributaries have, for generations, provided immeasurable benefits to the people of the Pacific Northwest and the nation. To the Native American Tribes of the Northwest, the rivers were the foundation of their culture and economy, as evidenced by the storied history of Celilo Village serving as the region's Wall Street and cultural hub along the Columbia for thousands of years.
President Thomas Jefferson knew his commissioning of the Lewis and Clark expedition in search of a northwest passage through the Snake and Columbia Rivers would help to develop the West and enhance commerce for the young country. Similarly, President Franklin Roosevelt realized the potential of these rivers to electrify the West when he signed the Bonneville Power Act in 1937 authorizing construction of the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River.
Ever since, the people of the Northwest have relied on this valuable resource for the irrigation of crops, harvest of fisheries, movement of goods to national and international markets, flood control, electrification of cities and rural communities and, today, the integration of intermittent wind generation. However, in recent years, a vocal minority has demanded removal of the four lower Snake River dams as the only way to save endangered salmon in the basin. Dam removal is an extreme measure that was studied by the Clinton administration and found unnecessary for the rebuilding of salmon runs.
Imminently, U.S. District Judge James Redden is poised to rule on the legality of the 2008 biological opinion for the Federal Columbia River Power System. Recently, the Obama administration has asked the court to withhold its decision on the 2008 biological opinion as the administration reviews the science and decides whether to proceed with the plan before the court, modify it or offer a different plan.
When the federal government, several Northwest states and four Oregon and Washington tribes agreed on a proposed settlement to restore salmon last spring, they did so for the common good of all parties involved. The parties agreed to put their differences aside and work as partners, not adversaries.
This agreement exemplifies the fact that the 2008 biological opinion was developed with the highest-ever level of stakeholder collaboration and support. The current plan also is based on the best and most comprehensive science compiled to date. Most importantly, the plan provides a path for the region to retain both the benefits of a clean, sustainable economic engine as well as healthier salmon runs. The Obama administration must move forward with this plan.
Concerns about climate change and its effects on salmon runs actually make the Northwest's federal hydro system more valuable, not less. The Northwest relies on hydropower for almost 60 percent of its generating capacity, giving the region the lowest carbon footprint in the nation.
Removal of the Snake River dams would devastate the region and further damage a fragile economy by hampering commerce for Northwest farmers and shippers, raising electricity rates for small businesses and citizens of the Northwest and increasing the region's carbon emissions. According to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, replacing the hydroelectric generation from the four lower Snake River dams would produce 4.4 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year.
During my time in political office, dam breaching was a polarizing political issue; pitting tribes against farmers, urban against rural, west against east. This kind of conflict simply wastes time that could be better spent improving fish habitat and migration on the rivers. The collaboration seen in the 2008 biological opinion demonstrates that the people of the Northwest can always find a fresh path of common ground, one that has the support of tribes, electric utilities, shippers, farmers and legislators from both political parties.
Too much is at stake to give up on the great progress that has been made. The potential of this region seen by Presidents Jefferson and Roosevelt was attributed to the power of the rivers in attaining broader goals for the country. I only hope that President Obama realizes that the power of this region is in its people, who have demonstrated in the 2008 biological opinion that working with each other instead of against each other will provide the common ground needed in order to preserve salmon, green energy and jobs for the Pacific Northwest.
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