Saving NW Salmon
U.S. District Court Judge James Redden once worried aloud that he would still be refereeing litigation over how to save struggling Northwest salmon when the last fish was caught.
That was two years ago. Today, the legal battle in Redden's Portland courtroom rages on with no apparent end in sight.
A polarized debate over salmon recovery has left the region no closer to a solution on the key issue before Redden: how to compensate for the fish-killing effects of the federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers.
Meanwhile, the situation is not looking good for fish. The Northwest is in the middle of a drought, and favorable ocean conditions that have helped boost salmon returns in recent years won't last forever. Biologists already are worried because far too few spring chinook salmon have shown up at Bonneville Dam this year.
The plight of salmon demands the region's undivided attention, something it cannot get while the parties who can best help remain on opposing sides of a courtroom. Granted, the Northwest continues to spend millions of dollars to develop plans and improve habitat and hatcheries. But so much more could be done if not for distractions like the case before Redden.
In 2000, the federal government announced a salmon recovery plan that kept alive the possibility of breaching the four lower Snake River dams to restore fish passage, but allowed the region time to work on other measures that might negate the need to breach. It was a masterful way of acknowledging the political reality that dam breaching would never happen while keeping the threat alive to force progress in other areas.
Still, Redden found the plan relied on recovery measures that were not certain enough to occur and ordered the government to rewrite it. But the federal government didn't just fix the flaws; instead it put a new spin on the very basis for the plan, the Endangered Species Act.
Federal agencies essentially have taken dam breaching off the table, arguing that it is not within their power. On that point, they are right. Only Congress can make that decision. But the revision also would, as the state of Washington has argued in court, limit the feds' responsibility to address and pay for future effects of the dams' operation.
Redden's verdict on that revision, which is under siege from environmentalists and irrigators alike, is due this month. If he rejects the plan, Redden could come up with new rules for how the dams will operate this year -- rules that could curtail electricity production and boost power rates.
The region does not need salmon recovery policy written by courts. It needs a federal government that is willing to fulfill its responsibility and regional interests that are more interested in actual progress than making a political statement.
Without either, Redden's fear could prove well-founded.
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