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Dam Decision Poses
Test for Obama Team

by Charles Wilkinson
The Oregonian, August 8, 2009

On Friday, we will learn a lot about the Obama administration's asserted commitment to science and law on environmental matters. The proving ground is in Washington and Idaho on the lower Snake River, the Columbia's largest tributary, where four dams and their reservoirs are salmon killers. U.S. District Judge James Redden, weary from years of evasion by the National Marine Fisheries Service, has called for an aggressive new approach and set the upcoming deadline.

The lower Snake dams are strategically critical because scientists believe that breaching them offers the best hope for reviving the fabled Columbia River wild salmon, which have been decimated by development, especially dams. These four dams have crippled the finest, highest and most expansive salmon habitat in the lower 48 states -- Idaho's wild, pristine country along the Continental Divide and the Wallowa Range in Oregon.

With these dams, the lower Snake is no longer a river. The living currents have been replaced by consecutive reservoirs stretching 140 miles. Young fish heading downriver to the ocean can't handle the slack water, which is warmer and slower than a salmon river should be. With their internal clocks thrown off, their nutrient chains broken, and as easy pickings for predators, about 40 percent of the young fish are destroyed by these dams and reservoirs. Mortality of returning adults is less but still severe.

Wild salmon have been pushed to the brink. Some runs have gone extinct, and those that remain are on the endangered species list. For eight years President George Bush's team repeatedly defied the Endangered Species Act, strong though it is on science and law, and for eight years Redden struck down their plans and ordered more action. This May, Redden denounced the 2008 Bush plan and strongly urged the new Obama administration to correct its many violations and chart a different course.

To comply with the ESA, the 2008 plan invented a new legal standard -- "trending toward recovery" -- that could be met if a species produced one more salmon than in the previous year. The ESA is far more rigorous than that. Federal officials must use "all methods and procedures" necessary to bring species "to the point at which such procedures are no longer necessary" -- that is, the agencies must take actions that lead to delisting the species.

On science, the Bush plan again failed. Among other things, Redden found it relied on "speculative, uncertain and unidentified" habitat improvement actions and noted that the government's own scientists concluded that mitigation measures were "unsupported by scientific literature." In appeals to earlier plans, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was no kinder, with one three-judge panel charging the government with "analytical [sleight] of hand" and "manipulating the data." And in the 2008 plan the Bush team continued its flat refusal even to study breaching the lower Snake dams.

The Obama officials took a hard line at an April court hearing, telling Redden that they "cannot and will not" amend the plan. Well enough, but they have other procedural ways to comply with the ESA, put respectable science in place and get on a responsible path to dam removal.

Jane Lubchenco, undersecretary of commerce, will make the first call. A first-rate ecologist from Oregon State University, Lubchenco understands the shortcomings of recent years. Like most of the scientific community, she surely sees taking out the dams as the best chance to save the salmon. But Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, who never warmed to salmon recovery as governor of Washington, and the White House are on the receiving end of strenuous lobbying from energy interests and the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal agency that markets power generated at the dams, makes money from the dams and disdains salmon recovery.

It is true that taking out dams cannot be done lightly. Existing users and local communities deserve full consideration. Dismantling a dam is a complex, expensive task and must be done with extreme care to protect public safety and downstream environmental values.

Yet times have changed in the Northwest. Large dams that no longer make sense are being removed on the Elwha, White Salmon and Klamath Rivers. The lower Snake dams deserve the same because they impose such high public costs and collide so directly with the ESA. They produce only a few percentage points of the Columbia-Snake system's hydropower, and there is ample analysis that it can be affordably replaced from noncarbon sources. And salmon mean jobs and business. Sportfishing is a major economic force in salmon country; one good salmon run will bring hundreds of thousands of dollars to a river town in Washington or Oregon.

Breaking from the past will bring out the best in us. These wonders of nature -- the sleek, silvery chinook charging up imposing waterfalls, back from their 5,000-mile life journeys and weighing in at 40 pounds and more -- inflame our imaginations with their strength and beauty. Bringing them back in robust numbers would exemplify our compact to live faithfully with the natural world.

This is one the Obama administration needs to get right.

Related Sites:
Letter from Ex-Governors
Salmon Solutions and Planning Act of 2009

Charles Wilkinson teaches at the University of Colorado School of Law and writes broadly on law, history and society in the American West.
Dam Decision Poses Test for Obama Team
The Oregonian, August 8, 2009

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