"Save Our Dams" read irrigation farmers' signs outside a Pasco hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee on Aug. 15. The committee chair, central Washington Congressman Doc Hastings, held the hearing on a bill — christened the Saving Our Dams and New Hydropower Development and Jobs Act — that would make it a whole lot harder to recover salmon populations in the Columbia River system and potentially a lot of other places. No one expects the bill to pass; Hastings' own press release described it as "a starting point" for discussion.
Hastings said at the hearing, though, as Annette Cary reported in the Tri-City Herald, that he had introduced the bill "to take back the offensive on saving dams."
Hastings' bill would, among other things, prohibit any federal money from being spent on removing, partially removing, or studying the removal of any dam in the United States that generates hydropower or on any dam removal mitigation or restoration measures without explicit approval from Congress. Spilling water over the dams to let young salmon make their way downstream in the spring — which the federal courts have required for years — would be forbidden if any federal agency decided that spill would do any harm to any listed species. Earthjustice attorney Steve Mashuda explains that this provision "would allow the [Bureau of Reclamation] or the [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] to basically veto spill.") The Bonneville Power Administration would have to estimate all direct and indirect fish and wildlife protection costs on its wholesale power customers’ monthly bills.
Last year U.S. District Judge James Redden tossed the National Marine Fishery Service's biological opinion ( BiOp) for operation of the federal Columbia River system hydro dams, giving the feds until Jan. 1, 2014 to come up with a better one. (This was strike four for the feds' efforts to get a biological opinion through the courts.) Redden — who has since retired and won't rule on the government's next attempt — had already made it clear that he wanted a BiOp to at least set up a contingency plan for dam breaching. He had proposed "developing a ... plan to study specific, alternative hydro actions, such as flow augmentation and/or reservoir drawdowns, as well as what it will take to breach the lower Snake River dams if all other measures fail."
Around the time Redden remanded the BiOp to the feds for another try, the Western Division of the American Fisheries Society passed a reolution stating that "the four lower Snake River dams and reservoirs are a significant threat to the continued existence of remaining Snake River salmon, steelhead, Pacific lamprey, and white sturgeon." Consequently, "if society-at-large wishes to restore Snake River salmon, steelhead, Pacific lamprey, and white sturgeon to sustainable, fishable levels, then a significant portion of the lower Snake River must be returned to a free-flowing condition by breaching the four lower Snake River dams."
That, of course, is not what people who depend on the dams and locks to provide cheap barge transportation all the way from Lewiston, Idaho, to the Pacific Ocean want to hear. The feds have just started to let the parties to the long-running BiOp litigation know what they're thinking about the next iteration. Nothing much has happened yet. There is a sense that not much about the parties' attitudes has changed. Some people find that frustrating. "You can't keep saying 'we don't want parties to litigate' while at the same time refusing to talk with them," Mashuda says. One can say that so far, the strategy pursued by the feds, and by the states and tribes that support them, hasn't worked, because NMFS has lost repeatedly in court. On the other hand, one can say its has worked just fine, because they've just kept on doing what they want to do.
Actually, while the courts have shot down one biological opinion after another, and Hastings and his allies use rhetoric that suggest we can still go back to 1937, even federal agencies have somewhat different expectations. Mashuda has mixed feelings about that. "Every time I hear Bonnevile taking credit for spill, my first reaction is one of simmering rage," he says. "But on some level, coopting that message [about the value of spilling water over the dams as juvenile fish make their way downstream every spring] is a sign that they've come to realize that [dealing with] this issue as [they did] in the '80s and '90s is no longer possible." But the evolution of attitudes is a slow process. "My big concern," Mashuda says, "is that it could be 40 more years. I think the fish are telling us that we don't have that much time."
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