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Habitat Plan Safeguards Dams
as Well as Salmon

by Editorial Board
The Spokesman-Review, September 20, 2009

An agreement between Washington state and three federal agencies to enhance the fish habitat in the Columbia River estuary comes at a good time.

The $40.5 million restoration project signed this week follows Tuesday's news that the latest plan for restoring endangered wild salmon in the Columbia River drainage includes a last-resort contingency of breaching dams on the Lower Snake River.

Even tentative conjecture about removing dams touches off jitters in the Pacific Northwest, and with good reason. The dams that have been built on the Columbia and Snake rivers over the past 75 years are essential to our way of life: economy, agriculture, transportation, recreation, flood control and, above all, electricity. Renewable, reliable, clean and relatively cheap electricity.

Stacked against all those assets, however, the federal Endangered Species Act mandates that effective steps be taken to restore endangered and threatened species, including the Northwest's revered salmon, whose habitat was largely sacrificed to those dams.

That doesn't mean the only way to save the salmon is to remove dams, but the federal judge in whose hands these decisions likely rest is looking for certainty that other approaches will succeed. If they don't, a Plan B must be ready.

"I hope it's never done," U.S. District Judge James Redden said in March about dam breaching. "I think we can resolve this. But if we can't, that's the last fallback."

Which is exactly the way breaching was described when the latest plan was unveiled this week.

Numerous other strategies are in play first, from managing the region's hydroelectric facilities for favorable stream flows, to dealing with predators such as sea lions and cormorants, to using hatcheries in a safety-net capacity, to restoring fish habitat along the lower Columbia as a means of improving survival rates during migration. But a plan that ignores Redden's concerns won't go far, so breaching is Plan B.

Which brings us back to the estuary deal signed Wednesday.

Redden has called habitat, especially estuary habitat, "the most serious flaw" in the previous salmon recovery plan. The more that concern is alleviated, the further into the background the breaching alternative is pushed.

Eastern Washington's two Republican House members, Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Doc Hastings, both focused foremost, however, on dam breaching as if it were being encouraged.

Yet Northwest RiverPartners, an Oregon-based alliance of utilities, ports and other river users that oppose dam breaching, said the latest recovery plan "holds the most promise for the region to move forward collectively to do things that actually benefit fish."

It was American Rivers, an environmentalist organization that insists on removing four Lower Snake dams, that trashed the new plan most harshly.

Removing this region's dams would be a serious mistake. The best way to avoid it is to get the work of salmon recovery out of the court and back to the river, where the efficacy of other, less-costly methods can be demonstrated.

Editorial Board
Habitat Plan Safeguards Dams as Well as Salmon
The Spokesman-Review, September 20, 2009

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