Our Lawmakers can Help Hatch
by Donald K. Barbieri
As the deadline nears for the federal government to deliver a new plan to restore wild Columbia and Snake River salmon and steelhead, there is a growing awareness in Eastern Washington that it's not just the fate of an iconic species hanging in the balance.
The decision point is coming over whether to remove four dams on the lower Snake River and truly restore wild salmon, or let this species fall by the wayside.
In the Inland Northwest, more business owners, community leaders, and even farmers are asking whether a restored river and fishery offers a more prosperous path to the region long term than holding onto four outdated dams.
As a fourth-generation resident and business owner in Spokane, I, as well as my family, have firsthand knowledge of the increasing value of healthy rivers, recreation and outdoor opportunities to both urban and rural economies.
In its early years, Spokane - like other cities - relied on its rivers for power and dumping waste, to the detriment of clean water and fisheries.
My great-grandfather told stories of fishing with local Native Americans for the famous "June Hogs," 100-pound salmon that once leaped the falls of downtown Spokane before dams wiped them out. And, while Spokane is now working to restore its backyard river, residents must travel south two hours to the Snake River and its tributaries to fish on the limited runs of salmon and steelhead - mostly hatchery fish, not wild - that manage to make it past eight dams on the lower Columbia and Snake rivers.
Like other places, the Inland Northwest is in an economic transition, one reflected in the debate over the Snake River.
The four lower Snake dams were built between 1960-75, primarily to allow sea-going barge traffic to reach Idaho. They no longer serve the best interests of local economies and exact a steep price by devastating salmon runs. In addition, Lower Granite dam is creating a flood risk to Clarkston, Asotin County, and Lewiston, Idaho, due to the massive amounts of sediment piling up behind it.
Options to address this growing problem carry significant long-term price tags: raising levees and potentially roads and bridges. Still, some local officials and industries have yet to come to grips with the fact that the dams are becoming costlier to keep than to remove.
But a new generation of community and business leaders is rightly questioning the value of maintaining the status quo versus embracing a new vision for their towns. Replacing 140 miles of barge navigation with new rail and improved highways, supporting clean-energy investments and restoring a salmon sport fishery with an estimated worth of more than a half-billion dollars a year to Idaho alone would be an economic boon, allowing both farming sectors and new industries to thrive.
Change can be difficult, especially when federal agencies and politicians are slow to chart the future path. I ran for Congress in Eastern Washington's conservative 5th District in 2004. I heeded advice to avoid the hot-button issue of salmon recovery and dam removal at all costs. If I were running today, I would take a different approach, both because the residents of Eastern Washington increasingly recognize that quality of life is the economic future of our towns and cities, and because there is a moral imperative to protect a species both iconic to the Northwest and spiritually vital to the Native American tribes.
Meanwhile, a federal judge appears determined to make the federal agencies honor the Endangered Species Act. West Coast commercial fishermen are demanding recovery actions upstream. And in the Inland Northwest, a growing number of quiet discussions are occurring on what abundant salmon and a restored river could mean for the region.
It is time for Congress to act, starting with authorizing much-needed studies through the Salmon Economic Analysis and Planning Act (SEAPA), HR 1507, introduced by Reps. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and Jim McDermott, D-Seattle. It's time for the entire Northwest congressional delegation to finally step forward, stop hiding from the debate and take a leadership role in ensuring salmon and the Inland Northwest have a vibrant future.
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