The federal agencies that operate dams and sell power on the Columbia River will keep spilling water over the Lower Snake River dams next month to float young salmon downstream. They didn't want to. But with the weight of scientific opinion clearly against them, they decided to make the best of a bad thing.
The Bonneville Power Administration, the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Northwest office of NOAA had asked the federal district court to let them follow a 2010 Spring Fish Operation Plan under which they'd stop spilling water over the lower Snake River dams by May 1.
On April 19, they told the court never mind.
Given all the scientific opinion to the contrary — everyone but NOAA thought that stopping spill was a bad idea — their chance of convincing the court seemed slim.
Those agencies are, of course, the defendants in the long-running suit over the Biological Opinion issued by the Bush administration in 2008, tweaked but basically defended by the Obama Administration last year, and scheduled to make another appearance in U.S. District Judge James Redden's court next month.
Federal courts have been hammering them over biological opinions for nearly 20 years. Redden, who tossed the Bush administration's first attempt at a BiOp, has expressed strong skepticism about this one, too.
When last seen, the BiOp would have made this year's proposed spring fish operation plan the new norm: federal agencies could spill or not spill at their own discretion. The fish operation plan was basically an effor to jump the gun.
Nineteen years after Columbia and Snake River salmon populations were first listed as threatened or endangered, we're still arguing about how to get them down the river.
Needless to say, young salmon of all species — except landlocked kokanee — make their way downstream to salt water. They don't really swim down. The current sweeps them from the spawning streams to the sea — unless, that is, the river has been dammed. Then, downstream passage can be a problem.
The old river, the river that cut its way through the basalt of the Columbia Gorge, is basically gone.
All the salmon populations in the Columbia River and its tributaries evolved in (or were intelligently designed for; this doesn't require Darwin) that river. They do best when the system functions naturally, or as close to naturally as generations of dam-building permit.
Therefore, the question is how you manipulate the flows through reservoirs, through and over dams to replicate the conditions to which wild fish adapted. Beyond the obvious — screening turbine intakes so young fish aren't sliced into sashimi, minimizing exposure to slack-water predators, so they're not swallowed whole — this is largely a question of moving them downstream quickly enough so they're not saltwater fish trying to survive in a freshwater environment..
Starting in 2006, plaintiffs in the BiOp litigation have persuaded Redden to order spill at lower Snake River dams every spring. Arguably — the plaintiffs certainly argue this way — these spills have been at least partly responsible for the recent increase in salmon returns. The Fish Passage Center has compared salmon survival rates for the low water years of 2005 and 2007 — before and after the court started ordering spill — and has found that fish did better in 2007. Two years ago, Redden told the lawyers in the case, "I conclude the status quo [regarding spring spill operations] should be maintained" while the feds completed the 2008 BiOp.
This year, the feds asked the judge to change his mind. What was new? Had anything changed, or was the feds' spring operation plan a classic example of people doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result?
Yes and no. What hadn't changed (what may never change) was that the usual suspects advocated the usual courses of action. What had changed was that they had acquired some new scientific data and therefore offered some new rationales.
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