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Salmon Aren't Helped by
Revival of Dam Debate

by Editorial Board
Tri-City Herald, May 29, 2009

A federal judge's recent comments on plans to protect Columbia River salmon jeopardize the fragile accord for saving endangered runs.

The timing of Judge James Redden's divisive letter to participants in a long-running lawsuit over this iconic Northwest fish was especially troubling, since it nearly coincided with this week's fact-finding mission by representatives of the Obama administration.

It would be best for salmon if the focus were on the regional recovery plan that last year rallied long-warring factions around concrete steps to improve conditions for the fish.

Instead, Redden's letter ensures that the schism created by talk of dam removal will dominate the new administration's introduction to Northwest salmon issues.

The judge barely mentioned dams, but it doesn't take much to trigger a reaction on this controversial topic.

The government's salmon recovery plan must include contingencies to study "specific, alternative hydro actions, such as flow augmentation and/or reservoir drawdowns," Redden wrote, "as well as what it will take to breach the lower Snake River dams if all other measures fail."

That's a far cry from ordering dam removal, but it was more than enough to weaken the tenuous truce among many -- but certainly not all -- of the stakeholders in this seemingly never-ending debate over the Columbia Basin's future.

With the alarm sounded, all sides scrambled back into battle formations.

"Instead of moving forward with a plan supported by nearly all parties involved, the judge has chosen to fight for the interests of dam removal extremists," complained U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings said.

And Hastings made it clear that Redding would have a fight on his hands if he pushed the issue.

"Federal law doesn't allow dam removal and no Democrat-politician-turned-activist-judge can rewrite the law. Only Congress has the authority to authorize dam removal," he said.

Advocates of dam breaching also responded, but naturally from the opposite corner.

Todd True, attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice, contends, "A serious look at the science and the options we have for bringing the fish back will lead to the conclusion that removing dams on the lower Snake River is a critical step that we should stop dancing around and start dealing with."

It's unfortunate Redden has redirected the conversation to dam removal. As his letter points out, the latest accord brings real progress.

Money is made available for improving habitat in tributaries and estuaries, and increased flows are planned in the mainstem of the Snake River to aid downstream migration of juvenile salmon.

"These are positive developments, and demonstrate that the parties are finally starting to work together," Redden wrote.

So why divide participants by insisting that dam removal remain an option?

The federal government has been trying to produce an acceptable salmon management plan -- called the biological opinion, or BiOP -- for the Columbia Basin since 1991.

Finally, there is an agreement, which provides $967 million over the next decade to improve fish and lamprey survival in the basin.

The Umatilla, Yakama, Warm Springs and Colville Indian tribes, the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bonneville Power Administration, the Bureau of Reclamation and the states of Montana and Idaho all signed the pact. Washington state supports the plan.

Redding successfully prodded the participants toward an agreement, and he's right about much else regarding this interminable debate over fish survival.

"If the parties can come to an agreement, I am optimistic that we can make this BiOp work and achieve what the previous BiOps have not," Redde wrote.

We share his optimism.

"All of us know that aggressive action is necessary to save this vital resource, and now is the time to make that happen."

And we share his sense of urgency.

But neither urgency nor optimism is served by redirecting the dialogue back to dam removal.

Redding ought to drop any requirement for including dam removal in the BiOP-- even as a last resort.

It's bad policy -- expensive to complete, and even more costly in the loss of billions of dollars generated in electricity, recreation, irrigation and transportation on the river.

All without anything more than a guess about its possible benefits.

And more than bad policy, it's a polarizing influence just when we were starting to come together.

Editorial Board
Salmon Aren't Helped by Revival of Dam Debate
Tri-City Herald, May 29, 2009

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