With Salmon Facing Extinction,
by Joel Connelly
REDFISH LAKE, Idaho -- At a weir near here, hand-drawn signs have carried an unusual message to marine life: They have urged salmon to have sex, or to be precise: "Spawn your brains out!"
One year, only a single sockeye salmon -- "Lonesome Larry" -- navigated nearly 900 miles in three great rivers, and made it past eight dams, to the 6,500-foot-high lake where thousands once spawned.
The number has edged up into the hundreds. The gains are man-made, however, and stopgap.
The real fate of Columbia and Snake River salmon will be decided far downstream in a Portland courtroom. The price of recovery might be breaching four Snake River dams that have decimated salmon runs but yielded power, irrigation and transportation benefits.
States, tribes, greens, irrigators, barge operators and a strong-willed, duplicitous federal agency -- the Bonneville Power Administration -- are struggling over something formally known as the 2008 Federal Columbia River Power System Biological Opinion.
Acronyms like "BiOp" and "FCRPS" get thrown around in letters from Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire and Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski. But it doesn't take a politician or a marine biologist to say what is at stake, just a federal judge sick of bureaucratic B.S.
"Federal defendants have spent the better part of the last decade treading water and avoiding their obligations under the Endangered Species Act," U.S. District Judge James Redden wrote in a letter issued on Monday to warring parties.
"Only recently have they begun to commit the kind of financial and political capital necessary to save these threatened and endangered species, some of which are on the brink of extinction. We simply cannot afford to waste another decade."
A dated bumper sticker puts it more bluntly: "Idaho has Habitat, Needs Fish."
It refers to this state's wild, stirring Salmon River, undammed from its headwaters to its confluence with what George W. Bush once called "the river on the Snake."
Redfish Lake, off the main Salmon River, was famous for its sockeye runs. The Middle Fork is spawning grounds for spring Chinook. The South Fork is home to summer Chinook.
The Idaho slogan may soon need an upgrade: "America needs Idaho's habitat for fish." With climate change, Western rivers are warming up and getting less spring and summer runoff.
Snow banks remain at Redfish Lakes in mid-May. Salmon will be able to spawn here after other habitats become inhospitable.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency holds a hearing on greenhouse gases in Seattle on Thursday. Gregoire is an early witness. Before local conservation audiences, she usually sounds like a blend of Al Gore and John Muir.
On the issue of Columbia-Snake salmon, however, Gregoire takes a far different stand. She is supporting a 2008 Bush Administration biological opinion on salmon. The Bonneville Power Administration backs the plan, as does the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and some native groups.
"If validated, the BiOp will guide the operation of the federal dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers through 2017 to ensure that 13 salmon and steelhead species listed under the ESA are not jeopardized," Gregoire wrote in an April 30 letter to the chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Along with conservation groups and the Nez Perce Indians, Gov. Kulongoski takes a different view.
In a May 15 letter to the Obama administration, the Oregon governor speaks of "ongoing concerns" about the Bush plan and argues that its scientific findings are "weak and vulnerable to attack."
Redden has praised "collaboration" in the Bush biological opinion. But signaled that the 2008 salmon plan won't pass legal muster in his courtroom.
The judge has hinted at a solution anathema to Eastern Washington politicians -- drawing down or removing four federal dams on the lower Snake River.
The dams have made reservoirs of the river and warmed its temperature. They have lengthened by days, sometimes weeks, the downstream journey of young salmon to the Pacific Ocean.
Federal agencies must put together a contingency plan to study "specific alternative hydro actions, such as (augmenting river) flow and/or reservoir draw downs," Redden wrote, "as well as what it will take to breach the lower Snake River dams if all other measures fail."
Bottom-dwelling Northwest politicians have jumped to demagogue the issue.
"Federal law doesn't allow dam removal and no Democrat-politician-turned-activist-judge can rewrite the law," declared Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash. He railed against Redden for siding with "dam removal extremists."
The Obama Administration has delayed venturing onto troubled waters, asking a delay as long as two months in litigation before Judge Redden to "more fully understand all aspects" of the 2008 Bush opinion and plan.
Gregoire should reconsider her stand. Judge Redden has made clear he considers the 2008 plan to be fishy.
According to the judge, federal scientists "improperly rely on speculative, uncertain and unidentified tributary and estuary habitat improvement actions to find that threatened or endangered salmon and steelhead are, in fact, trending toward recovery."
Should our governor be hooked to a flawed plan? Would Gregoire support its loose "trending toward recovery" language if dealing with Puget Sound's orcas, salmon and endangered critters? Judge Redden's letter creates a fresh opportunity to look at North America's most imperiled salmon population.
When Snake River dams were built, the Army Corps of Engineers and our politicians depicted "happy" salmon being trucked and barged around dams. President Bush (II) spoke a similar message in 2000: "The man and the fish can coexist."
Maybe, but man has to make some changes, and our politicians can no longer treat this issue as water off their backs.
Do we want a federal judge running the Columbia-Snake River system? Or will Gregoire, Kulongoski and the Obama Administration work out a new plan that puts salmon on the road to recovery? The clock is ticking.
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