by Editorial Board
Salmon's adversaries didn't count on its advocates or salmon's tenacity
The new federal plans for aiding endangered salmon runs aren't quite as big a disappointment as some in the environmental and fishing communities suggest. But they inevitably continue to suffer from the age-old conundrum of deciding how to split the baby without killing it.
It must be hard to argue with straight faces, as NOAA Fisheries Regional Administrator Bon Lohn and others continue to do, that dams and irrigation projects do not jeopardize the survival of 13 salmon and steelhead runs that are protected by the Endangered Species Act.
The four ill-begotten dams on the Snake River, in particular, represented a forthright sacrifice of salmon on the altar of hydropower, Lewiston barges and dry-side agriculture.
You don't have to believe in conspiracies to think that it was intended salmon and steelhead runs should gradually cease altogether so that expensive but ineffectual mitigation measures could cease also. Those who looked for this ending didn't figure on the strength of opposition from salmon advocates or the tenacity of the salmon themselves. Nor did they plan on federal Judge James Redden, who has taken Congress at its word when it legislated in favor of species recovery.
Having thus undercut their own credibility, those who prepared the latest salmon plans go on to argue there is "a great degree of certainty that these actions will lead to salmon recovery."
At their core, the newly minted plans essentially fiddle around with and try to perfect an array of measures that aim to get salmon back and forth between spawning grounds and the ocean, but without removing the enormous concrete barriers that block their path. And you've got to give them credit. Federal agencies have gotten pretty good at approaching the problem from every direction except dam removal.
These have not been a total failure. Although nothing like they were a century ago, Columbia runs rebounded somewhat before slacking off again lately. One apparent lesson is the importance of ocean conditions to how salmon prosper. Less obviously but perhaps more importantly, we've seen how success and failure are difficult to predict from one year to the next. We have to use all the tools at our disposal.
Spilling reservoir water to aid migration is one key and controversial example of this. Some criticism is being leveled at new plans to adjust spills to maximize benefits at certain times on certain stretches of the river, whereas critics would like to see a more natural flow regime all the time. Until this happens, however, it makes sense to get the most benefit from the water that is released and the new plans may do that.
As a practical matter, with the Bush administration coasting toward its departure in little more than a year, plans drafted now may run aground and stay that way until a new president is in place.
More importantly, agency scientists and political appointees must join with the public in discussions about protecting salmon in a time of water scarcity and efforts to control greenhouse gas emissions. If deciding between industry and salmon was difficult during a time of abundant water, imagine how much more intense these fights will become.
The opinions and supporting documents are available here.
Idaho's Sockeye: FCRPS Biological Opinion NOAA Fisheries' Executive Summary, 10/31/7
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