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Fish and Dams: Tell it to the Judge

by Lance Dickie
Seattle Times, November 30, 2007

Federal authorities would rather tug on Superman's cape than muss the robes of U.S. District Judge James Redden. He has been kicking backsides and taking names on Columbia River salmon issues for years.

Maybe the main-stem bureaucrats have finally satisfied his insistence on running the river's hydroelectric system in a less lethal, more fish-friendly way. The third try may indeed be the charm.

Failure to convince Redden that the latest operating plans, or biological opinions, not only help salmon survive, but also promote significant recovery, will draw the judge's laserlike focus on the dams, especially four on the Snake River.

Things could get messier and more expensive if the judge in Portland loses all patience with the revised plans drafted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and kindred agencies on the river's organizational chart.

Breaching those dams - essentially gouging the earthen berms at their sides - has long been an improbable option.

Ten years ago, Seattle Times colleague Ross Anderson and I reported and opined at great length about the Columbia's salmon troubles. The first advice offered was to focus on what was doable and not dwell on dam breaching - it required congressional action, there was zero political support and the electricity was too valuable. None of that has changed.

In the meantime, the federal government had a serious attack of the stupids.

Redden kicked back a 2000 biological option because he wanted the plan's commitment to habitat restoration and protection strengthened. Habitat is one of the four H's, along with hatcheries, harvest and hydro, that are a workable shorthand for problems and fixes. The judge's finger was not pointed at the dams.

The rewrite of the plan coincided with a change in the White House. In 2004, the revisions had wisps of Bush administration attitude turning up in other environmental documents: The dams are just another part of the natural surroundings for the fish to navigate. Tough.

Fair or not, that is how the hydro language was interpreted and received. Sloppy writing or orders from on high, it did not matter. Redden was not amused. He bounced the biological opinion back with mutters about dam removal on the Snake or water-lowering drawdowns behind the John Day Dam on the Columbia. A challenge of Redden's rejection lost on appeal.

In late October, NOAA returned with revised plans focused and perhaps contrite enough to win the judge's approval. I am not sure if, "OK, OK, we get it" is a precise technical description, but that is the tone the drafts present on dam modifications, hatchery production, habitat improvements and dealing with predators. Bass beware!

The hardy perennial of dam breaching is not recommended in the plans, which is no surprise coming from federal agencies that generate and sell power, and provide irrigation and recreation.

After a decade, the case for breaching dams is still waiting to be made. The latest plea to punch holes in the dams to provide fresh lox for orcas downstream is not compelling.

Climate change is real. So is global warming's effect on salmon via snow packs and river levels and temperatures. Emissions-free electricity provided by the four Snake River dams is a relevant resource. The dams represent about 12 percent of BPA's annual hydro energy, and 5 percent of the power from all sources in the Northwest. The electricity nicely complements the ebb and flow of wind power, serves as reliable backup during seasonal peak demands, and is vastly cheaper than market-rate alternatives.

Conservation works, and it is a supply to be promoted, but it does not enhance reliability of the entire system through the vagaries of weird weather and freaky outages.

Climate change and the region's energy portfolio were in the news this week with a refusal by the state energy-siting agency to endorse a new coal-fired plant because of its environmental baggage.

Attempting to make hydro compatible for fish and electrical generation has been a long work in progress. Do not provoke the judge.

Redden can say the region finally did get it, and provide a 10-year respite until a new plan is due. That's necessary breathing space for consequential, vetted tasks to be launched and done right.

Related Pages:
NOAA analysis and opinions

Lance Dickiecolumn appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times.
Fish and Dams: Tell it to the Judge
Seattle Times, November 30, 2007

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