Will the fifth time be the charm for NOAA Fisheries, or will it be the time when control of the Columbia River hydro system passes to the exasperated federal courts?
Since 1991, when the first Columbia River system salmon populations were "listed," National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries (aka the National Marine Fisheries Service) has issued five official biological opinions on operation of the federal Columbia River power system. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals observed last year that Columbia River dam operations "have been the subject of perpetual litigation since the fisheries in question were first listed." The courts have thrown out three biological opinions. The agency withdrew one on its own. The fifth came out last month.
Now a coalition of environmental and fishing groups, represented by Earthjustice, has challenged the new Opinion in the court of U.S. District Judge James Redden, who tossed out biological opinions issued in 2000 and 2004.
(Technicalities: A species is listed as "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act if it faces a risk of extinction and "threatened" if it faces a risk of becoming endangered. If a federal agency proposes action that may jeopardize the continued existence of a listed species and/or may destroy or adversely modify its critical habitat, the secretary of the Interior or Commerce departments — acting through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or NOAA Fisheries — must issue a biological opinion.)
Last time around, Judge Redden made it clear that his patience was wearing thin. If the government failed this time to craft an opinion that complied with federal law, he wrote, "the courts would be required to 'run the river.'" Judge Redden could take control of the entire federal hydro system, just as U.S. District Judge William Dwyer took control of Northwestern national forests during the spotted owl wars of the early 1990s. Exactly how that would work isn't clear.
Basically, the plaintiffs argue that NOAA Fisheries has proposed doing the same old things but somehow expects a great new result. (Plaintiffs have won on this issue time after time. Betting on NOAA Fisheries in Judge Redden's court would be like going to a bullfight and betting on the bull.)
Four years ago, the Bush administration introduced a novel theory — that the dams had become part of the environmental baseline, part of nature, so to speak, so that the government didn't have to consider their adverse effects. The administration also basically focused on the survival of listed salmon populations to the exclusion of their recovery. Redden slapped those arguments down, and the Ninth Circuit sustained him. Endangered Species Act "compliance is not optional," the court observed. "Like the district court, we cannot approve NMFS's insistence that it may conduct the bulk of its jeopardy analysis in a vacuum."
The earlier, 2000 opinion, on the other hand, frankly found that continued operation of the hydro system would jeopardize the recovery of listed salmon populations. To mitigate the effects of dam operations, it proposed an array of habitat improvements that would in theory allow the fish to recover. The proposed actions under the control of federal agencies clearly wouldn't suffice, so the "bi-op" included things that other people would have to do. Here, too, Judge Redden didn't buy that approach and the 2000 bi-op was thrown out because the feds relied on actions that weren't "reasonably certain to occur."
So where could the administration turn? This time, the feds are proposing a narrower range of habitat fixes. Earthjustice attorney Steve Mashuda points out that the "reasonably certain to occur" standard limits the government's options, so this proposal is actually more modest than the one put forward in 2000. He says, "it's hard to understand how doing less will result in more survival."
It is indeed. Actually, the feds this time have focused less on survival than on recovery, which they have based on an unprecedented standard. The requirements of the Endangered Species Act will be met, they argue, as long as a salmon population is "trending toward recovery." What does that mean? Presumably, by definition, if it's not trending toward extinction, it's trending toward recovery. That can mean a population gains another fish or two per generation, or just that it isn't losing any fish. Neither federal law nor federal regulation nor any scientific report on Columbia River salmon has ever mentioned "trending toward recovery."
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