Gregoire, Obama Administration
by Erik Robinson
Oregon, which is suing over federal dam plan, left out in the cold
A day after endorsing a Bush-era plan to operate federal hydropower dams, the Obama administration finalized a deal Wednesday with Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire to spend an additional $40.5 million improving salmon habitat on the north side of the Columbia River.
"It's time to get out of the courtroom and into the streams," Gregoire said.
Habitat-related work in Clark County accounts for eight of the 21 estuary projects underwritten by the money, which will be spent over the next nine years. Washington gets the money in return for endorsing the legality of the latest federal plan to balance the operation of federal hydropower dams with 13 runs of threatened or endangered salmon and steelhead.
Oregon, which shares the estuary but is challenging the dam plan in court, gets zilch.
"The rewards are going to those who are joining the federal government's side of the litigation here," said Mike Carrier, natural resources policy adviser to Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski.
Snake River dams
Meanwhile, in an interview with The Columbian, Gregoire said she was not surprised that the new administration amended the feds' 2008 dam-management strategy to consider breaching four federal dams on the lower Snake River if other measures fail to conserve endangered salmon.
Gregoire, along with most major elected officials in the Northwest, has opposed the idea of breaching the dams in Eastern Washington. However, Gregoire noted that U.S. District Judge James Redden made it plain that he expects tougher action by the government to comply with the Endangered Species Act.
"He telegraphed that it has to be on the table," Gregoire said. "If everything fails, then, as a last resort, dam-breaching has to be on the table. I know it's frustrating to some."
River industry groups and U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, blasted Obama for including the dam-breaching option. However, environmental groups contend that it's not enough merely to study breaching at some point in the future if things aren't going well. Oregon and the Nez Perce tribe have also pushed for tougher action to conserve fish.
"We see a lot of process, a lot of planning, but very little solid, concrete new actions," Carrier said. "The plan really strives to say all the right things, but produces little in terms of hard assurances that they're really beefing up this biological opinion -- with the exception of the agreement with Washington."
Salmon, he noted, don't distinguish state lines.
"We would hope the federal government would take a more regional, more cooperative approach," Carrier said. "Notwithstanding our differences, let's put those dollars where they get the biggest bang for the buck."
(bluefish notes: Estuary actions spelled out in the Biological Opinion are expected to provide a 6% survival benefit for Steelhead and 3% survival benefit for Chinook. No Sockeye survival benefits are projected nor expected, as very few if any linger in the estuary. See Estuary Science Policy Exchange 9/11/9 under science subcategory in Salmon & Ecologics index.)
Oregon officials want to improve salmon spawning habitat in mountain tributaries such as the Imnaha in northeast Oregon, Carrier said.
The head of the Bonneville Power Administration acknowledged that federal authorities acted quickly to help Washington and not Oregon.
However, BPA administrator Steve Wright noted that it was Judge Redden who suggested improving habitat in the estuary, where all oceangoing fish make the transition from fresh water to salt water. Washington officials already had been collaborating with Idaho, Montana and representatives of several Columbia basin tribes to help the federal government formulate a legally defensible dam plan, called a biological opinion.
"That's the advantage of having built these kinds of partnerships," Wright said. "We are able to act much more quickly."
The Washington agreement bolsters a previous federal commitment of almost $150 million in estuary improvements on both sides of the river.
"From a science point of view, the fish want to use the whole estuary," said John Ferguson, director of the fish ecology division of the federal Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. "From a political point of view, you're talking about one piece of the estuary restoration that's going on. There is a lot of habitat restoration going on, on both sides of the river."
The agreement with Washington follows a series of accords reached last year among federal agencies, five Columbia River tribes and the states of Idaho and Montana. The parties agreed not to challenge the current biological opinion in court. In return, the government agreed to provide $900 million over 10 years in hatchery improvements, stream restoration work, screens to protect fish, and additional spillway weirs on some of the dams.
"It's a bribe, but I don't think it's an illegal bribe," said Michael Blumm, an environmental law professor at Lewis & Clark College in Portland.
Gregoire said she keeps in close contact with Kulongoski, a fellow Democrat, and believes that the only way to ultimately recover wild salmon is through regional consensus.
"Let there be no mistake: We're partners, and this is about the fish at the end of the day," Gregoire said. "Once Judge Redden rules, I think we're going to be in the same place together. Oregon is a plaintiff in a lawsuit, and they're waiting for the court to rule. I respect that.
"Once that ruling comes down, there's no doubt in my mind we're partners."
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