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The Judge, Salmon and You

by Tracy Warner, Editorial Page editor
Wenatchee World, June 1, 2005

A federal judge is being asked by environmentalists and fishermen to take control of the Columbia River, the Snake River, its tributaries, all dams and accouterments, and order measures that will cost perhaps $150 million, raise your power bill up to 8 percent, all in the name of saving salmon from the dreadful drought. These drastic measures, however, quite possibly will kill more salmon than they save.

All this will be done in the name of environmental goodness and will be typical of salmon-saving efforts over the decades -- great human sacrifice required, while benefits to salmon are either disputed, immeasurable, exaggerated or plainly non-existent.

The federal judge who will hear this request is none other than James Redden of Oregon, who last week gave great satisfaction to anti-dam interests by trashing the federal government's plans for operating the Columbia and Snake rivers and their hydroelectric system. Redden's ruling wasn't surprising. Nearly every federal hydro salmon plan has been trashed by a judge at one time or another. This last plan, called The Biological Opinion, was written to replace the previous judge-rejected effort. The new plan was particularly suspect, since it assumed federal dams were unmovable fixtures and their effects on salmon need not be considered under federal law. The judge said that under the Endangered Species Act this approach is rubbish, and since law is supposed to rule the day he may very well be right. Environmentalists immediately crowed -- this means the breaching the lower Snake River Dams is back on the region's menu, and that after all is the ultimate goal.

This month the same people who want dam breaching will come before Redden and ask him, in this drought emergency, to order all the floodgates on the rivers pushed wide open this summer. The goal is to speed up the flow of the river by 10 percent, supposedly to increase the survival of year-old salmon as they make their way to the sea.

This is problematical, because water spilled over dams makes no electricity, so power must come from more expensive sources. This will cost the users of federal power about $100 million, maybe $150 million, according to the Bonneville Power Administration. The net salmon benefit? "Essentially no survival change at all," according to the University of Washington's assessment. There isn't any firm scientific proof that increasing the river flow in and of itself increases salmon survival, and spilling so much water will cause harm and expose salmon to higher water temperatures, which are deadly. More salmon will survive if the federal government goes through with its plans to move as many salmon as possible downriver by barge, which is what worked in 2001. Despite unfounded claims of mass salmon carnage that year, those salmon returned in fairly strong numbers.

None of these practical considerations may matter. After all these years the effort to save Columbia River salmon seems to have less to do with how many fish actually survive to spawn, and more to do with what can be extracted from the system. In this process $100 million for nothing is not unprecedented. It would just be another legal trophy, the expense extracted from people every time they turn on their lights.

Tracy Warner, Editorial Page editor
The Judge, Salmon and You
Wenatchee World - June 1, 2005

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