Flexibility, Contingencies Undergird
by Gary Locke & Jane Lubchenco
For the last decade, the Northwest has been embroiled in a contentious legal dispute over the fate of fish in the Columbia and Snake river basins.
In the 1990s, 13 species of Columbia basin salmon and steelhead were given protection under the Endangered Species Act, which compelled the federal government to take aggressive action to restore these populations to health. But an ongoing lawsuit claims that the government has not done enough.
Public debate has centered around four hydroelectric dams in the lower Snake River basin that provide 5 percent of the region's energy needs. Some want to see those dams breached because they believe the fish cannot recover with the dams in place. Others are adamantly opposed to breaching as unnecessary, harmful to the region's economy and of dubious benefit to salmon.
This has often been portrayed as a zero-sum battle. On the one hand, you have the health of fish populations that are absolutely central to the economic and cultural vitality of the Northwest United States. On the other are the four dams that provide enough clean, carbon-free energy to power the entire city of Seattle.
That's a false choice. It is now time to move out of the courtroom and get to work recovering salmon and preserving the region's unique way of life.
That's why last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its federal partners filed an aggressive plan to preserve the Northwest's endangered fish species without taking precipitous action that would impact the region's clean-energy sources. The plan is the result of a five-month, intensive review by the Obama administration and incorporates input from federal biologists, independent scientists and a broad array of stakeholders. It builds upon the collaborative process strongly encouraged by U.S. District Judge James Redden and addresses concerns he has raised. The plan is based on the best available science and is nimble enough to respond to change.
The plan will immediately accelerate and enhance current measures to protect the fish, increase and improve the data and analytic tools to know how the fish are doing, and provide for multiple contingencies if the fish are not performing as expected. The plan ensures that independent scientists are involved in implementation decisions and resolving significant scientific issues.
The federal plan will immediately inject millions of dollars in additional funding behind these efforts.
Our work will build on positive developments that have seen five out of seven Columbia basin fish runs improve since they were first listed. In addition, we are seeing encouraging returns of critically endangered Snake River sockeye salmon.
Good ocean conditions deserve plenty of credit for the improving health of many of the region's fish. The ocean was helped, though, by hundreds of actions throughout the region to repair damaged spawning habitats, boost survival through hydroelectric dams and fine-tune harvests so every fish has the best possible chance to swim home and rebuild its numbers.
At the same time, NOAA is expanding research, monitoring and evaluation to track changes in fish populations. Multiple factors -- including ocean conditions, climate change and the complex interaction of different species -- influence the well-being of these fish.
This makes it essential that any plans to preserve these fish are flexible enough to respond to changing conditions. We believe our enhanced research and evaluation efforts coupled with specific contingency measures will give us this capability.
Our plan includes contingency measures that will be implemented if salmon populations decline significantly. These include additional measures to divert water to improve fish runs, increase predator controls, adjust harvest levels and safety-net hatchery practices.
The plan also includes further study of lower Snake River dam breaching, but removal of dams is viewed as an action of last resort. The four dams on the Lower Snake River in Washington generate two coal plants' worth of clean power. They also help the electric grid absorb additional wind energy. Hundreds of megawatts of this clean wind and hydropower flow throughout the West to help meet the aggressive renewable energy and efficiency goals the states have adopted to combat climate change.
Moreover, studies have yet to conclude that breaching these dams would be of certain benefit to Northwest fish stocks. Dam breaching will be considered only if the measures in the plan do not prevent significant declines in listed salmon populations and if an analysis shows that dam breaching would likely stem those declines.
Ultimately, saving Northwest salmon and steelhead is about more than dams -- it's about helping fish at each step in their life cycle, from the streams where they're born to the ocean where they mature. We believe our plan is scientifically sound, addresses the concerns of the court and the multiple stakeholders, and will prevent jeopardy to the fish and their critical habitats. For the sake of the people and the fish of the Northwest, it's time to set this plan in motion.
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