To Aid Salmon, Judge may
by Robert McClure & Lisa Stiffler
With Snake and Columbia river salmon runs dipping mysteriously low -- low enough to reignite talk of breaching electricity-producing dams -- a federal judge today plans to begin personally overseeing the rivers' hydropower system.
So few salmon have materialized this spring -- 160,000 fish are no-shows, about two-thirds of the total expected -- that fishing for the spring chinook run was severely curtailed. Puzzled fishery managers are searching for the cause.
That's the sobering backdrop to a key court hearing today before U.S. District Judge James Redden, who is expected to order federal agencies to start operating the dams in a more fish-friendly way. In the past, the judge has simply bounced the agencies' salmon-recovery plans back for more work and let them keep running the hydropower system as before.
The dams help keep the lights on across the Northwest -- but also kill some young salmon as they pass through on their way to the ocean. Partly because of the low salmon counts and partly because environmentalists and fishermen are making headway in court, the idea of knocking out four dams on the Snake River is again getting a push.
It's still a long shot, a highly controversial notion rejected by both Democratic and Republican administrations. The Seattle City Council's endorsement of the concept focused Eastern Washington's ire on city leaders like little else in recent years.
Those trying to resurrect the dam-breaching idea say they think they'll be able to show it makes good sense economically as well as environmentally. That's a tall order, because more than electricity is at stake. The dams make it possible to barge wheat and other grains down the rivers at a low cost, and provide a handful of mega-farms with irrigation water.
"We've got to produce energy, we've got to take care of the farmers and we've got to transport goods," said Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. "We can engineer those. We can make those work."
That idea gets an icy reception from the Coalition for Smart Salmon Recovery, a collection of pro-dam businesses and utilities.
The anti-dam forces "have been emboldened by some current events," said Shauna McReynolds, a spokeswoman for the business group. "I'm not sure they're looking at all the tradeoffs. ... If the four Snake River dams are gone, I don't know the numbers, but there would have to be a big impact."
The whole idea of breaching the dams -- punching holes in them and allowing the Snake to flow more naturally again -- is several steps ahead of what's being argued today before Redden in Portland. The case grows out of the refusal of the Clinton administration -- and later the Bush administration -- to consider breaching the dams.
Instead, the federal government promised to improve the operations of salmon hatcheries, limit the amount of salmon that can be caught and make fish-friendly adjustments to the dams.
Since setting out on that course in 2000, the federal agencies involved -- primarily the National Marine Fisheries Service, Bonneville Power Administration and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- have been spending about $600 million a year to help Columbia and Snake fish and wildlife, including salmon. About half comes from federal tax dollars. The rest comes mostly from utility ratepayers in the Northwest.
"We can have good, clean hydroelectric power and salmon restoration going on at the same time," President Bush said on a 2003 visit to the Snake's Ice Harbor Dam, where he vowed to protect the dams.
But that plan was challenged by environmental and fishing groups. Later in 2003, Redden struck down the Clinton plan for, among other things, failing to say specifically enough how salmon would be saved.
A replacement plan also failed to win Redden's approval, with the judge ruling last month that elements were "contrary to law."
"It is apparent that the listed species are in serious decline and not evidencing signs of recovery," the judge determined.
The low return of salmon this spring comes after several years when the fish showed up to spawn in relatively high numbers -- though the runs were still, by historical standards, hurting. Scientists say shifts in Pacific weather patterns that appear to affect salmon are partly to blame.
This week, Redden issued a terse order saying he intends to require the federal agencies to spill more water through the dams' spillways, which are a bit like large artificial waterfalls and considered the safest way for the fish to get through the dams.
That course of action is expensive, though.
Every gallon that gurgles over the spillways to speed fish oceanward is a gallon that can't be run through the dams' turbines to produce power. With a summer drought looming in Eastern Washington, federal officials are nervous about having enough water to crank out enough juice.
"The costs are certain and will impact our rates and the economy severely," said Scott Corwin, vice president for public affairs of the Pacific Northwest Generating Cooperative, which represents rural electric cooperatives and is involved in the suit in Redden's court.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, which drew up the federal plans that Redden is second-guessing, says another reason to stay with its plan for barging or trucking the fish is simple: more are likely to survive.
"The simple fact of the matter is that we think we have a plan that is better and safer for fish," said Brain Gorman, spokesman for the Fisheries Service's Seattle-based regional administration.
Environmentalists, tribes and fishermen, though, say the best thing for the fish is letting them go through the river -- and as close to what nature intended as possible. That means going through the spillways.
"We want to see him order something that's more positive for salmon. We have a whole set of things" to recommend, said Mike Matylewich, head of the fish management department of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission.
Redden's brief order this week, though, indicated he would not go along for now with a key element of the course requested by environmentalists and their allies -- speeding up the flow of the rivers.
That would more closely mimic the rivers' natural state -- faster-flowing waterways that pushed young salmon quickly and safely to sea -- without knocking down any dams.
But that alternative also means turning loose a lot more water without first using it to produce electricity.
Beyond the to and fro likely around the goings-on in Redden's court as the dry summer progresses is the renewed question of whether disabling the four Snake River dams makes sense.
With federal agencies spending some $600 million a year, think of the possibilities if the dams were breached, say breaching advocates. Maybe better rail and truck transportation could replace barging wheat and other goods. New irrigation facilities could be built.
"There's a win-win out there. We just have to find it," said John Kober, a Seattle-based representative of the National Wildlife Federation, the lead plaintiff in the case before Redden.
The Fisheries Service has said that while breaching the dams would improve salmon survival, the fish can recover sufficiently to meet the requirements of the Endangered Species Act if other, less-dramatic measures are taken.
It was in an earlier chapter of this debate that the Seattle City Council five years ago passed a resolution urging the breaching of the dams. The move sparked a barrage of criticism from Eastern Washington mayors, city councils and others.
The four dams, coincidentally, produce about enough juice to power Seattle. And while the city has its own electricity-producing dams on the Skagit River, it also buys a significant chunk of its power from the federal system.
Advocates of breaching say alternatives -- conservation and wind power are two mentioned often -- would allow the federal system to withstand the loss of power from the four Snake dams.
"In the big picture, that's a question this region ought to be looking at pretty seriously if it wants to solve the problem," said Todd True, the Earthjustice lawyer representing environmentalists and fishermen in the suit before Redden.
"If we want to have both healthy salmon and a good economy that includes shipping grain and generating power and growing agricultural products, those four dams really stand in the way."
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