Risk to Dams
Dusting off the old "Save Our Dams" signs surely won't help, but it's not clear anything else can force a rational approach to preserving Columbia River salmon either.
U.S. District Judge James Redden recently breathed new life into the idea of breaching the Snake River dams, and he is unlikely to be swayed by protest rallies or any other form of public pressure. And while judges shouldn't bend to political winds, the situation on the Columbia-Snake system leaves the dams' supporters with little hope of influencing events. Redden's ruling last month, which gave federal agencies a year to come up with an acceptable plan for saving endangered salmon, clearly expressed the judge's frustration.
The 13-page order directs the four federal agencies -- NOAA Fisheries, the Bonneville Power Administration, Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation -- to collaborate with state governments and Native American tribes on a new plan.
The courts have rejected three other proposals for saving Columbia River fish since 1993. Another failure would leave the court to "run the river," the judge warned.
If that happens, Redden added, "Additional measures, including the breaching of dams," may be necessary.
That's not idle rhetoric. Redden demonstrated his willingness to take control of the river system this past summer, ordering additional water spilled through five dams to aid migrating salmon. The Bonneville Power Administration estimated the value of power lost by diverting water away from the dams' turbines at $67 million.
But it's also clear Redden is hoping the threat of court control can force a compromise. " 'Speeching' on the dams will not avoid breaching the dams," he wrote. "Cooperation and assistance may."
The problem with that approach is that it assumes everyone at the negotiating table wants to avoid breaching. The tribes may well decide their interests will be best served if the river system falls under court control.
In that case, all the tribes have to do is nothing, no compromise is reached and the four dams on the Lower Snake River face what may be their most serious threat yet.
It's not clear that breaching actually would help salmon. Serious questions exist about the effects of tons of silt behind the dams.
And certainly less-invasive alternatives haven't been explored. More endangered salmon are killed by commercial fishing than are saved by spilling water over the dams.
But no matter how desirable a plan that accounts for the needs of people and salmon, there's little the public can do to force cooperation.
For better or worse, the best hope now is for Redden's prodding to produce an acceptable compromise for saving salmon.
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