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Salmon or political games? Obama administration makes its choice

A federal judge repeatedly warned the federal government that only big changes to proposals for hydro dams would guarantee approval. Instead, the Obama administration has presented a plan that looks very much like the Bush strategy.
The Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River is one of four that are critical to debates about salmon.

The Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River is one of four that are critical to debates about salmon. U.S. government/via Wikimedia Commons

Isn't it nice when new information proves you were right all along? The Obama administration has had that happy experience, and it shared the good news on May 20, when NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service unveiled its Supplemental Biological Opinion on operation of the federal Columbia River system dams. The government looked at some new science. It looked at the old BiOp. And ... what do you know? Touch the old document up a little, and it's good to go — just as the feds had thought.

”Feds tweak Columbia salmon plan,” says the headline on the Idaho Statesman's web site. "Obama Administration backs Bush-era plan for Columbia Basin salmon," says the equivalent headline in the Oregonian. "While there are verbs among the 'actions,' " says Todd True, managing attorney of Earthjustice's Northwest office, “there is no action.”

Earthjustice attorney Steve Mashuda dismisses the new document as "a book report." Not even the government's own press release pretends that much has changed.

Federal courts have been tossing Columbia River BiOps since the Seattle Mariners had Alex Rodriguez at shortstop and Randy Johnson on the mound. The federal agencies are already 0-for-4. U.S. District Judge James Redden, who has thrown out two biological opinions and has had the current version in his court for two years, has made it clear that his patience has pretty well run out. It's hard to predict his next step in a case that has already dragged on into almost unchartered waters.

"I thought [this supplemental BiOp was just what the judge didn't want, which was window dressing," says Save Our Wild Salmon's associate director, Dan Drais. We'll see.

The first Columbia Basin salmon population — Snake River sockeye — was listed in 1991. (By this time, 13 populations of Columbia and Snake river fish have joined the list.) Since then, the federal courts have rejected three biological opinions. (A fourth, explicitly short-term, was withdrawn.) "Two years after a federal judge in Portland told the federal government it was doing too little to protect salmon and too much to protect the status quo, environmentalists are back before him arguing nothing has changed and the region's wild salmon runs are even closer to extinction," Les Blumenthal wrote in a Tacoma News Tribune piece about the latest Columbia River BiOp — in 1996.

The Clinton administration issued a BiOp in 2000, just as it was heading out the door. Redden sent the opinion back because it was based on actions that were "not reasonably certain to occur."

The Bush administration could have merely created a little more certainty. Instead, it concocted a brand-new opinion based on a brand-new legal theory: the dams had, in effect, become part of the natural baseline, so the government didn't have to consider their effects. Redden tossed it. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sustained his decision.

Team Bush tried again in 2008. Gone was the legal novelty of its first attempt. The new BiOp tried, in the view of many critics, to stick largely with business as usual — but to conclude it would produce an unusual result. The Bush administration did suggest that the government could comply with the Endangered Species act if the listed salmon populations were "trending toward recovery." That could presumably mean one more fish per year.

It was a concept foreign to statute or case law. But then Bush was gone. Obama was in. The new president had talked about letting good science lead policy. Some salmon advocates hoped that things would change.

But one can never be too cynical where Northwest salmon politics are concerned. Team Obama took the ball from team Bush and kept running. The same ball. In the same direction. Redden made it clear that the Bush BiOp was probably a loser. Among other things, he said, "I still have serious reservations about whether the 'trending toward recovery' standard complies with the Endangered Species Act, its implementing regulations, and the case law. Even if 'trending toward recovery' is a permissible interpretation ... the conclusion that all 13 species are, in fact, on a 'trend toward recovery' is arbitrary and capricious."


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Comments:

Posted Wed, May 26, 7:56 a.m. Inappropriate

The column is too long -- too long because nobody should have such a long record of failure to summarize. Nobody should have to go back to 1996 for early evidence that the Columbia-Snake salmon policy has never, ever been driven by science. There should be no need to have so much to say about the ways in which the new biop is just like the old ones.
And sadly, the column could have been even longer. It could have gone into the stunning absence of leadership for lo these many years from our elected leaders. Not just Slade Gorton, but Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Chris Gregoire have been vocal - rabid? - advocates for the sorry "business as usual" approach that this column documents. People in fishing communities along the coast, farming communities east of the Cascades, whale-watching communities in the San Juans, and points in between are all yearning for a solution that doesn't depend on litigation and lawyers, but our elected officials have hidden behind Larry Craig, behind BPA, behind ephemeral bumps in salmon returns, behind every shadowy object they can find to avoid actually grappling with a serious problem that costs the people of our state jobs, money, stability, and a valuable part of our heritage.
The column could also have been longer had it talked about the successes of dam removal in other places in the NW and around the country. Dam removal is not the apocalypse, nor unproven, nor even more expensive than dam retention.
But now this comment is too long. Thanks for a good analysis, Mr. Chasan.

nonydog

Posted Wed, May 26, 11:51 a.m. Inappropriate

Maybe Obama realized that people and jobs come first, salmon come second.

Posted Wed, May 26, 12:30 p.m. Inappropriate

This issue drives me nuts.

Hydroelectricity is the cleanest energy available to humans. Tearing down the dams on the Columbia to save a few runs for one breed of fish that can also be bred in a hatchery - the heighth of insanity.

The insanity topper: Often, the same folk who want to tear down dams and eliminate hatcheries since the few weeks or months spent in a hatchery by the little hatchlings compromises the fish so definitively that they aren't even the same species as a wild fish, those same folk want to create a cradle-to-grave hatchery culture for humans. What's up with that?

Posted Wed, May 26, 4:02 p.m. Inappropriate

Ah, yes, "jobs and people" come before salmon- and in the Gulf Coast, before shrimp, fisheries, and even, alas, people who work in the vacation industry there.

But don't stop there- look at the old Soviet Union, always ready to sacrifice the environment for "jobs and people". Chernobyl, of course, is the best known dead zone in the USSR, but there are others. A small sea has essentially dried up, some ports are clogged with abandoned nuclear subs, hazardous waste sites abound- an object lesson in what happens when you put "jobs and people" ahead of the survival of the world in which those people live.

Posted Wed, May 26, 8:01 p.m. Inappropriate

Excellent post, serial_catowner

Continued footdragging on the Snake River dams issue by NMFS (a.k.a. "not much fish science") exemplifies why increasing numbers of people are calling the President "George W. Obama." He promotes revitalization of the nuclear energy industry, touts "clean" coal, and until BP's little boo-boo in the Gulf supported oil drilling on the east coast. Never let it be said that Obama is slacking off at waging war on the environment.

Mud Baby

Posted Thu, May 27, 12:41 a.m. Inappropriate

China is a fine example of jobs above people, culture, nature, you name it. China loves dams. Ironically, the jobs China is after are the same ones we built our dams for--aluminum plants, internet farms. We don't build more because we discovered Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Too bad those who float that slogan come up with reason after reason for Other People to use it. The new cargo cult is waiting for the five more planets that will show up so all the world to live the way we do.

afreeman

Posted Thu, May 27, 9:11 a.m. Inappropriate

The environmental community needs to weigh in on the immigration debate. Researchers at Oregon State University have determined the number one threat to PNW salmon is immigration into the region, the vast majority of which comes from outside the U.S. and Canada (their words, not mine). In fact, they say, if not controlled, NOTHING ELSE (including dam removal) will "save" wild Pacific salmon. To date; however, no-one in the environmental community seems willing to broach the subject. Enviros and immigrants are both factions in the Democrat party. Ignoring the elephant in the room (immigration) means - really - politics trumps the environment. And those who would consider themselves saviours are - really - just another part of the problem (and, yes, this DEFINITELY includes our own Puget Sound Partnership).

BlueLight

Posted Fri, May 28, 2:40 p.m. Inappropriate

As I recall, the OSU piece ID'ed regional population growth, not immigration per se, as the threat. Not that many people (green or red, for that matter) are shouting much about population.
The hydro dams are carbon-free energy producers. True. They produce less than 4 percent of the region's electricity, and most of what they produce is sold out of the region. They require enormous amounts of capital to maintain (e.g., a new turbine being developed cost $10 billion, and there are at least 20 to replace). They provide no flood control -- in fact, the sedimentation behind Lower Granite has CREATED a flood risk for Lewiston, ID. One of the four Lower Snake dams provides irrigation, for fewer than 20 farmers; dam removal would require relocating the pumps but would not preclude continued irrigation. In short, their various costs are not worth their benefits, AND their benefits could be replaced.
I don't know a soul who thinks that Columbia R hydro dams should, or ever could, be removed. They actually do provide significant irreplaceable benefits. But the four Lower Snake River dams are a financial nightmare and ecological lunacy.

nonydog

Posted Mon, May 31, 10:28 a.m. Inappropriate

So, I just keep wondering: what do we do about the other 9 of the 13 listed species that DO NOT swim past the 4 lower Snake River dams??? How will improving habitat access and migration for the four Snake Species help the other Columbia basin populations? That is a bit of Science that someone needs to explain to me.
So, yes, count me as one who wants to see Bonnevile as the first dam to be breached. Doing so would help all 13 species and more importantly, it would bring the direct cost of environmental extremeism home to a large urban population. To have downtown Portland under water every spring, in my opinion, would truly be EQUAL JUSTICE under the environmental law.

Posted Fri, Jun 4, 3:33 p.m. Inappropriate

So how many nuke plants would it take to replace the power from the Snake River dams? I say build the required number of nukes, then tear out the dams.

Also, I am curious has anyone done any calculations as to how the salmon population would benefit if we prohibited the Northwest fishing fleet from harvesting them? Would it be possible to take all the billions of dollars thrown at the river habitat issues and pay the fisherman to sit around and drink beer for a few years? Or, are the fisherman unionized and own too much of the government?

Herb

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