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Progress for Salmon

by Editorial Board
The Columbian, September 20, 2009

New federal plan supported by three states; it's time to let the scientists take over

After the Obama administration released its salmon recovery plan Tuesday, Gov. Chris Gregoire said, "It's time to get out of the courtroom and into the streams." That won't happen soon. Oregon continues to challenge the plan in court, although Washington, Idaho and Montana support it. Still, Gregoire makes a good point, to which we add: It's time for scientists to replace politicians and lawyers in the vital issue of restoring salmon habitat.

Fortunately, the new plan moves in that direction. It takes the best of the Bush administration's ideas for salmon recovery and adds more extensive commitments to habitat improvements, expanded research and monitoring, and specific biological triggers for stronger measures if recovery benchmarks aren't met.

bluefish notes: biological triggers are NOT triggered "if recovery benchmarks aren't met" but triggered by a "significant deviation from biological expectations."

AMIP excerpt: The purpose of the Significant Decline Trigger is to check each year for a significant decline in the natural abundance of species (excluding Idaho's Sockeye by AMIP footnote 11). A significant decline is judged to occur when the running four-year mean of natural-origin adult abundance falls below a 10% likelihood of occurrence based on historical data (generally since 1978-80 and ending with the most recent year available, depending on species). The principle underlying the Significant Decline trigger is that the observed condition would be a significant deviation from the biological expectations in the 2008 BiOp. If it were to persist despite the AMIP's short and long-term contingency actions, it could call into question the BiOp's No Jeopardy conclusion for one or more species, resulting in the reinititaion of consultation.
And it didn't take long for Washington's support of the federal plan to pay off. As The Columbian's Erik Robinson reported, an agreement was reached one day later for $40.5 million in federal funds for improving salmon habitat on this side of the Columbia River. This is particularly good news for Southwest Washington; eight of 21 estuary projects will occur in Clark and Skamania counties over the next nine years. Oregon, though, received no such commitment from the federal government.

In the other three states, though, the feds will spend $900 million over 10 years on such projects as hatchery improvements, stream restoration, screens to protect fish and more spillway weirs at several dams.

The new plan has one flaw, but one we find acceptable for now: The breaching of Snake River dams -- long a hotly contentious issue among many factions throughout the Northwest -- is listed on the Obama plan, albeit as a last resort. The Columbian several years ago expressed mild editorial support for at least continued study of dam removal. But that view has withered in intervening years for several reasons. Dam removal has been studied to death, it has drawn little support from any elected officials outside of Oregon, and no compelling method has been presented for replacing the hydropower that would be lost to dam removal. Bonneville Power Administration chief executive Steve Wright told the Tri-City Herald in Kennewick that replacing the hydroelectric power generation lost in dam removal would require an additional 3 million tons of carbon dioxide per year coming from other power sources.

Nevertheless, dam removal is such a last resort in the plan, and for now appears on such a distant back burner, that even dam-removal opponents such as Gregoire think the Obama plan is worth endorsing. The plan is also supported by five Columbia River tribes (the Nez Perce oppose it).

Both opponents and supporters of dam removal have criticized the Obama plan. U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., fiercely defends the dams and said -- after dam-breaching was left in the plan as a last resort -- that "it seems to me all the dams on the Columbia River system are in jeopardy." On the other side, Nicole Cordan of Save Our Wild Salmon said the new plan repeats many of the Bush administration's mistakes with "a whole lot of money spent and not a whole lot of impact happening on the ground."

Much effort remains, though, before scientists can replace politicians and lawyers in meaningful efforts to help 13 runs of threatened or endangered salmon and steelhead. The new plan still must pass muster with U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland. Redden has rejected two earlier plans. Our view, though, is that enough study has occurred, mountains of statistics and projections have been presented, and it's time to move forward. We're glad Washington, Idaho and Montana are doing precisely that.

Editorial Board
Progress for Salmon
The Columbian, September 20, 2009

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