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Commentaries and editorials

The Northwest Salmon Debate

by Greg Delwiche
The Oregonian, July 2, 2009

It's easy to forget most of region agrees on protection

Amid the drumbeat of litigation that surrounds Columbia River salmon and the ever-present debate over dam-breaching, it's easy to miss one remarkable achievement: We now have a salmon protection strategy that most of the region agrees on. That has never happened before.

Most of the affected Native American tribes support it. Three of the four Northwest states support it. (Washington, Idaho and Montana do; Oregon does not.) Diverse economic interests support it. Tribal fish biologists support it. This is nothing like the deadlock characterized by Paul VanDevelder in his July 12 essay ("Fish story is a cautionary tale").

There are still critics -- on environmental issues, unanimity is rare. But among the many intractable water and natural resource disputes that dominate the West, rarely has there been such a comprehensive solution with such broad backing.

The Endangered Species Act requires what is called a biological opinion, outlining how federal agencies must minimize the harm to endangered fish while operating Columbia and Snake river hydroelectric dams. Despite unprecedented support for so-called BiOp measures that improve conditions for fish, some critics also want four major dams on the Lower Snake River breached. This is at the heart of a high-profile court case. While the BiOp does not call for removing dams, neither does it ignore the impact dams have on fish -- far from it. Of 73 specific actions outlined to protect fish, fully 30 involve modifying the major dams and operating them to better promote fish survival.

The reason it doesn't deal solely with the dams is that they're far from the only problem fish face. That's why the BiOp, with federal-state-tribal agreements called the Columbia River Fish Accords, goes far beyond the dams to also address other critical but less obvious threats that have dogged fish for decades.

It dedicates funds to repair and protect hundreds of miles of spawning streams hammered by years of logging and grazing, for instance. It mandates reform of hatcheries that otherwise dilute the genes of wild fish populations and introduce disease. It takes aim at unnatural predators that a recent study concluded do as much damage to salmon populations as dams. In many cases, science shows these steps can benefit fish more than further fixes at each dam, particularly where upwards of 95 percent of fish now pass safely.

The comprehensive scope is what has earned the approach such broad support and is why it makes sense for fish and for the region.

This broad backing is, believe it or not, one positive outcome of the litigation that many of us feared would never end. U.S. District Judge James Redden, unsatisfied with earlier federal fish strategies, directed that only true regional collaboration would yield a true regional solution. Tribes, states and federal agencies that too often have been foes finally found one. It's not dictated by the feds; it's designed by the region and it offers a path out of the courtroom and onto the rivers and streams the fish -- and all of us -- depend on.

Woody Guthrie sang about how the dams, from Grand Coulee on, shaped the Northwest. (Full disclosure: BPA paid Woody to write those songs.) Today the dams hold new values that are just as important. The same hydropower that provided energy to build the ships and planes that won World War II today gives the Northwest electricity with, on average, about half the greenhouse gas emissions of the rest of the West, and the least in the nation.

The same hydroelectric dams, built and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation, created a 900-mile inland waterway and gave the Northwest its manufacturing industry. They have today helped the BPA add more wind energy to the Northwest power system than any other of its size. Wind needs a backup power source to quickly fill gaps when it doesn't blow. Nuclear and coal plants react too slowly. Hydropower, though, is ideal.

Any choice we make has environmental consequences; any source of energy that keeps our lights on has impacts. If it's not dams, it's coal, natural gas or nuclear.

This is not to say that we shouldn't strive to reduce the impact of dams on the salmon and steelhead that are every bit as vital to the region's economy. And we are. About one-third of BPA's wholesale electric rates goes toward fish and wildlife. The support of so many tribes who have long depended on salmon, who were too often overlooked by past federal policies, underscores the strength and credibility of the solution. Communities, tribes and biologists are now working side-by-side from the headwaters to the estuary.

The Obama administration is reviewing the plan to determine its adequacy. But this plan deserves credit for bringing many, although not all, diverse interests together.

Related Pages:
Salmon Salvation by Ken Olsen, The Oregonian, 5/4/9

Greg Delwiche is vice president of Environment, Fish and Wildlife at the Bonneville Power Administration in Portland, Oregon.
The Northwest Salmon Debate
The Oregonian, July 2, 2009

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