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Commentaries and editorials

Federal (spill) Plan Finally may
be Helping. Why Mess with It?

by Editorial Board
Idaho Statesman, April 18, 2010

President Obama often talks about governing based on "sound science."

Are those just words, or a prevailing philosophy? Watch what happens in the next two weeks.

On May 1, the Obama administration is scheduled to curtail water "spill" at the Columbia and Snake river dams. In a dry year, the administration would rather hold the water in dams, collect the young fish, and barge them to the ocean - ignoring the scientists who recommend a combination of barging and spill.

The outcome will affect Idaho salmon and steelhead, and Idaho's salmon and steelhead fishing economy. When more young fish navigate from Idaho the Pacific Ocean, more adult fish survive to make their extraordinary 6,500-foot climb from sea level to Idaho's mountain spawning waters.

For Idaho fish, the timing is critical. The spill, if it continues, coincides with downstream migration. Citing federal research, the Boise-based salmon advocacy group Idaho Rivers United points out that 90 percent of Idaho's salmon migrate downriver during the proposed no-spill period.

"The administration's ongoing failure to move the ball forward and fix the problems left over from the Bush era is one thing, but taking affirmative steps to roll back existing protections is shocking," said Bill Sedivy, Idaho River United's executive director.

Pretty harsh criticism, considering the Bush administration's failings on the salmon issue.

But this is not really about heeding the critics, even the environmental groups the understandably expected more when Obama was elected 18 months ago. This is really about listening to the experts - and incorporating "sound science" into decision-making.

On April 9, the administration received a warning from the scientists working for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, the regional panel charged with balancing the region;s energy and environmental needs. The scientists' message: Stay the course. Hedge your bets/ Continue barging some young fish while flushing other young fish past the dams.

The council's Independent Science Advisory Board specifically suggests that spill could benefit sockeye, the imperiled and fabled "red fish" that gives Redfish Lake its name.

In the Snake and Columbia rivers, sockeye survival rates improved from 2005 to 2007. One possible difference was a court-ordered spill program that was in place in 2007.

Spill is a small step - minor compared to the lower Snake River dam removal favored by most scientists.

Since wild salmon are as mysterious as they are majestic, it would be misleading to suggest that spill is the sole factor affecting salmon in the short run. So many other variables contribute to survival rates, including conditions in an ocean where salmon spend most of their lives. The scientists don't even have all the answers about the ways of Idaho's ocean-going young fish. As the Independent Scientific Advisory Board writes, "A clear interpretation of the effect of a mixed transportation and spill strategy on Snake River sockeye survival is not yet available."

In the face of this uncertainty, why is the administration willing to bank on barges? It is a gamble, the antithesis of sound science.

It also jeopardizes the real and remarkable improvement in Idaho sockeye returns.

Last year, 833 sockeye returned to Central Idaho. In 2008, 650 sockeye returned. From 1999 to 2007 - a nine-year run - only 355 sockeye survived the 900-mile trip.

Two promising years do not constitute recovery. But for a fish that has been on the feds' endangered species list since 1991, the last two years finally offer some good news. Why mess with it?

The sockeye that leave Idaho this spring won't return until the fall of 2012. But no on will have to wait two years to get a better sense of Obama's commitment to salmon science.

Two weeks ought to cover it.

Related Sites:
Independent Scientific Advisory Board Review of NOAA Fisheries' 2010 Low Flow Fish Transport Operations Proposal
Shoshone-Bannock Snake River Sockeye SARs Doug Taki, Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, 3/12/10

Editorial Board
Federal (spill) Plan Finally may be Helping. Why Mess with It?
Idaho Statesman, April 18, 2010

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