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Feds' Latest Columbia River Plan:
Play Me an Old-fashioned Melody

by Daniel Jack Chasan
Crosscut, January 27, 2014

Hopes and vague promises didn't fly with Bush administration courts, or even two years ago. But here we go again.

Steelhead swim up to 900 miles from the ocean to the headwaters. Anglers can keep only hatchery steelhead, which are marked with a clipped adipose fin, the one behind the dorsal fin. All fish with an adipose fin must be immediately released unharmed. Will the fifth time be the charm? Probably not.

The federal government has just come out with a new biological opinion (BiOp) on how to conduct the operations of its Columbia River system dams. The feds have been issuing Columbia River BiOps since Bill Clinton sat -- and did whatever else he did -- in the White House. And for all that time, the federal courts have been slapping them down.

The newest version was unveiled on January 17. It looks remarkably similar to the last one, which was prepared by the administration of George W. Bush and repackaged with little substantive change by Obama officials. United States District Judge James Redden rejected that Bush-Obama hybrid document in 2011.

If history provides a guide, this new BiOp will soon be the target of litigation by conservation groups and it, too, will eventually be tossed out by the courts. "Unfortunately," said Save Our Wild Salmon executive director Joseph Bogaard in a press release, "this latest blueprint is virtually indistinguishable from the plan rejected by the district court in 2011."

If, as they say, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again but expecting a different result, those people at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS, aka NOAA Fisheries) must be a pretty wacky bunch. Or not. The feds have basically tried to preserve business as usual. Through two decades of court losses, they have largely managed to do so.

How did we get here? The background may be somewhat familiar, but worth recalling in what has become a court fight with a life cycle as predictable as that of the salmon. Here goes:

  1. The Columbia River system drains a quarter-million square miles, an area roughly as large as France. The Columbia itself rises in British Columbia, 1,200 river miles from the Pacific, and is joined at the Tri Cities by its largest tributary, the Snake, which rises in Wyoming.

  2. For millennia, the Columbia was the greatest chinook salmon river in the world. Up to 15 million wild salmon of all species made their way up the river to spawn.

  3. Tribes all along the river caught, dried and ate the salmon.

  4. Because it drops so far (roughly half a vertical mile) on its journey from the mountains to the sea, the Columbia has more hydroelectric potential than any other river in North America. From the 1930s to the 1970s, the federal government built a series of dams on the Columbia and its tributaries, including the Snake.

  5. Those dams, known collectively as the Federal Columbia River Power System, still generate some 40 percent of the electricity used in the Northwest -- some of it in Seattle and Bellevue -- and enable tugs and barges to travel all the way to Idaho.

  6. The dams blocked salmon passage to and from salt water. Some were built with fish ladders. Others weren't. Once the dams went in, the numbers of fish plummeted. This came as no great surprise.

  7. Dams haven't been the salmon's only problems. Columbia River salmon runs were clearly being overfished by the late 1800s. Much of the river's estuary has been filled in. Spawning streams have been affected by farming, ranching and development. To increase survival rates, for many years the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has trucked young salmon downstream around the dams. Federal, state and tribal hatcheries have pumped out many millions of fish. The river still supports only a fraction of its former runs.

  8. Starting in 1991 with the red fish (sockeye) of Idaho's Redfish Lake, Columbia and Snake river salmon populations have been listed as threatened and endangered species.

  9. Because of this, the federal government has had to issue biological opinions on whether or not operation of the dam system will jeopardize their recovery.

  10. Four BiOps have already been rejected by federal courts.
No one has decided yet to sue over this version, but a bet in favor of litigation would seem less a gamble than an investment. As the newest act in this long-running drama plays out, though, there are some themes to remember.

Like its predecessor, this BiOp relies heavily on habitat improvements rather than changes in dam operation; the court may or may not be convinced that these improvements will really happen -- or that they will produce the benefits that the federal agencies predict.

Daniel Jack Chasan
Feds' Latest Columbia River Plan: Play Me an Old-fashioned Melody
Crosscut, January 27, 2014

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