Feds: New Move to Break
by Joel Connelly
The Obama administration wants two neutral, university-based environmental mediators to tackle the 20-year impasse over restoring Columbia and Snake River salmon runs by doing a "situation assessment" and hearing out the river system's irrigators, grain producers, barge operators, ports, greens, fisheries interests, tribes and other "stakeholders."
"We want to ensure our existing and future recovery plans are complete and integrated," Barry Thom, deputy regional administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, wrote in a letter to the river's competing, often-litigating interests.
It's a move born out of failure and frustration. Successive administrations have produced five "biological opinions" on how to improve once-mighty, now-imperiled salmon populations in the Columbia River system -- particularly salmon runs that spawn far up the Snake River in Idaho.
One by one, the plans were rejected by now-retired U.S. District Judge James Redden. The latest opinion -- an Obama administration plan that closely resembled a Bush administration plan -- was turned down because of its vague assumptions about restoring fish habitat.
NOAA has chosen the Oregon Consensus Center and the William D. Ruckelshaus Center to come up with an assessment by late summer of 2013. They are being asked, in Thom's words, to consult with "a broad array of regional participants over the next several months."
Snake River dams are the key, hitherto intractable issue. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built four dams during the 1960s and 1970s. The dams made Lewiston, Idaho -- 435 miles upstream from the Pacific Ocean -- a barge port for export of grain overseas.
By turning river to reservoir, however, they increased -- from six days to a month -- the time it takes for young salmon to reach the ocean. Fish populations have been decimated. Four species of Snake River fish -- sockeye, spring and summer chinook salmon, and steelhead -- are now listed as endangered or threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The salmon spawn as far distant as Redfish Lake in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains. One year, only a single adult sockeye salmon -- christened "Lonesome Larry" -- returned to spawn. A weir near the lake became a kind of shrine to the return of salmon, with candles and drawings and signs with such messages as "SPAWN YOUR BRAINS OUT" and "SPAWN UNTIL YOU DROP."
"Idaho has habitat, need salmon," read a bumper sticker championed by Idaho's then-Gov. Cecil Andrus. The vast Salmon River system in Idaho, where Lewis and Clark once caught salmon, is undammed. Downstream, however, salmon must run a gantlet of four Snake River and four Columbia River dams.
Environmental and fisheries groups, and some tribes, have demanded a breaching of the dams. Agricultural interests and ports, as well as most Washington politicians, have resisted the proposal. President George W. Bush was drawn in as a defender of dams on what he called "the river on the Snake."
The fight has been furious. The Bonneville Power Administration sought to stop the spring "fish flush" in which water is spilled over dams to help salmon smolts swim downstream to the Pacific. The "flush" costs the federal power marketing agency revenue in the form of power sales to California.
Federal courts have kept the spill going. Under Govs. Ted Kulongowski and John Kitzhaber, Oregon has largely sided with commercial and sport fisheries interests. Washington politicians, even those who sound like John Muir west of the mountains, have defended the dams.
Gov. Kitzhaber has taken the leadership in arguing that the federal government should go back to the drawing boards, convene and consult all "stakeholders."
Under Judge Redden's last ruling, the feds have until Jan. 1, 2014 to come up with an acceptable "biological opinion." If the impasse continues, Andrus warned nearly two decades ago, "We could have a federal judge running the river."
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