Columbia River Treaty Tribes
by Jean Johnson
PORTLAND, Ore. - Fish belong in the river: any child should be able to take this as a given.
Nonetheless, managers of the Columbia River have gone a long way down the slippery slope of damming the river into a series of slack water pools. So whether to let the Pacific Northwest's salmon continue navigating the waterways is precisely the question being debated in the region's conference rooms and courts.
Awash in hydropower dollars, irrigation monies and a barging industry that has displaced steel rails, big business and its cronies in the Bush administration apparently find the question of whether fish should stay in the river a legitimate one.
Au contraire, said three Columbia River tribes - just look to the coalition of conservationists, businesses and sport and commercial fisheries that has brought suit against the federal agencies.
The coalition is on target, as far as the tribes are concerned, and right on the money in its effort to hold the feet of the nation's collective politico-industrial complex to the fire. The coalition is quite clear on the tenets of the 1973 federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the group realizes that the current powers-that-be are trying an end run, the tribes say.
Because of their sovereign nation status and treaty rights to 50 percent of the harvestable fish in the river, the Columbia River tribes' standing takes precedence over the federal ESA. Consequently, they have not joined the current suit directly, but support the plaintiffs as a ''friend of the court,'' or amicus curae in legal jargon.
In two documents filed in late March, the tribes urged Judge James Redden of the Oregon District Court to implement stopgap measures to protect the fish during the 2005 summer season while the Bush administration's latest version of environmental protection on the Columbia - the 2004 federal salmon plan - makes its way through the litigious hoops. And while all the flows and spill talk associated with the Columbia's gauntlet hydropower projects gets a bit confusing, the gist is that the tribes want to keep the fish in the river.
''Give them some spill from the dams during juvenile out-migration and let enough flow through the system for the young salmon to find their way through the pools behind the dams,'' said Robert Lothrop, director of policy development and litigation support at Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC). ''The federal agencies involved seemed determined to barge as many fish as possible. We're calling for at least a fair share to be given a chance to stay in the river, where our numbers show they do better.''
Particularly when the Northwest is going into its third most serious drought year on record, the idea that big business will usurp water earmarked for fish is a serious concern. Not only did Bonneville Power Administration take the lion's share of the Columbia flows several years back when it claimed dire financial straits, the for-profit federal agency tried to get around its responsibilities to the fish again last summer until the court overruled its plan to cut water spills.
To head off further maneuvers, the tribes are backing the plaintiffs and asking the court to close up loopholes in the salmon safety net through which the fish could clearly fall come the long hot days of August. The decision didn't come without careful consideration.
''This is the first time since the original ESA listings in the early 1990s that anyone has asked for specific relief in operation of the hydropower system, except for last summer when BPA tried to circumvent the law,'' Charles Hudson, CRITFC's public information manager, said. ''We're not in court today over simple edits and fine print; rather, the Bush administration is trying to rewrite the entire book. Produce a brand-new novel, if you will - their particular brand of fiction.''
The Northwest experienced a drought in 2001, the second-worst low water year on record. BPA and the Army Corps of Engineers relied heavily on barging salmon that year. Since then, the 2001 juvenile fish that out-migrated on their three- to six-year ocean cycle have returned in significantly fewer numbers than salmon from other years, when sufficient flow and spill allowed them to remain in the river. With drought looming, the tribes in company with the coalition are trying to head off a replay of that disaster.
The tribes can do nothing less, according to CRITFC Executive Director Olney Patt Jr.
''Based on the agreements we concluded many years ago in 1855, it always comes back to salmon recovery. Our position has never changed. We oppose any action that adversely impacts the salmon,'' Patt said. ''It's very simple for us to stay on that course. No matter how many times they change the rules, we see the adverse effects, and so we're going to raise the alarm.''
Writing a brand-new novel; changing the rules midstream; raising alarms in courts of law - all business as usual on the Columbia, some might say. Others would argue that the winds during the current era are exceptionally chilly ... even bitter and cold.
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