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Salmon Options Costly and Stark

by Editorial Board
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 21, 1999

The National Marine Fisheries Service has done a clever thing in presenting the region's elected decision-makers with a menu of options for saving vanishing Snake River salmon runs.

Now the ball is in their court. The agency clearly has spelled out the likely effects of each alternative on the chances of fish recovery. It wisely has laid out blueprints that give politicians choices about how to implement the Endangered Species Act on behalf of the fish.

Thus armed with scientific information, politicians will be able to decide how to best apportion the sacrifices required of the region's salmon-killing constituencies. What could be more democratic?

Four things impact wild salmon survival: harvest, habitat, hatcheries and hydropower dams. If harvest continues untouched, for example, it will trigger a need for more sacrifices among the other three to meet the requirement of the law. And if habitat remains degraded, it will trigger sacrifices in harvest, hydropower and hatcheries and so on.

If the four Snake River dams remain intact, it will push the burden of sacrifice on to the fishing industry, ranchers, irrigators, timber industry, developers and hatcheries producing fish that compete with wild salmon.

Politicians, then, will be required to decide whose oxen are to be gored. Though that's what we pay them for, this awkward responsibility is probably not what our elected representatives have been pining for. But it's an appropriate exercise of their office.

The best thing about it is that the stark menu of choices and ensuing consequences leaves them no place to hide.

The panel of scientists hired by the agency concluded that the single most certain way to restore the runs is to breach the dams. But opposition to that from the Port of Lewiston, barge companies that use the Columbia/Snake river system as a highway to transport goods, and a dozen irrigators who would lose their water has dimmed official enthusiasm for breaching.

A large number of the menu's choices are about the contentious matter of who will give up water for the fish. If the dams remain standing, huge amounts of water likely will be required from upstream irrigators in Idaho -- perhaps enough to affect 20 percent of that state's potato crop.

If Congress nevertheless decides, say, that Idaho irrigators should bear a large part of the burden of improving salmon habitat, it's a safe bet those irrigators will have to be compensated. So will any other entity that finds itself burdened with a major responsibility for salmon survival. Dam breaching or no, there are no cheap fixes, as the agency makes plain.

Sen. Slade Gorton, head of our state's congressional delegation, has been the leading opponent of dam breaching and a frequent critic of expensive but ineffectual programs to save the fish.

Asked recently at a Post-Intelligencer Editorial Board session if he would be willing to be the first publicly elected official to advocate that the region give up the expensive effort to save the Columbia/Snake salmon runs, Gorton emphatically answered: "No!"

We take Gorton at his word. Now, with bureaucrats backpedaling away from dam breaching, Gorton has what he wanted. With that political victory comes the opportunity -- not to mention the responsibility -- to demonstrate that he can devise a better solution to this wretchedly complex matter.

Editorial Board
Salmon Options Costly and Stark
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 21, 1999

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