Our Sponsors:

Read more »

Our Members

Many thanks to Alliance Communications and Charles Wolfe some of our many supporters.

ALL MEMBERS »

In a status-quo sea, Oregon politicians are salmon's lone champions

When it comes to taking down dams and salmon rehabilitation on the Snake River, Washington and federal politicians are staying mum, while Oregon's bolder brand of elected official is stepping out in favor of the Northwest's token fish.
Salmon move through a fish ladder on the Columbia River's Bonneville Dam.

Salmon move through a fish ladder on the Columbia River's Bonneville Dam. Northwest Power and Conservation Council

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber during a 2011 press conference to discuss plans for a new bridge across the Columbia River.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber during a 2011 press conference to discuss plans for a new bridge across the Columbia River. Oregon Department of Transportation/Flickr

A Chinook salmon. (U.S. Geological Survey)

A Chinook salmon. (U.S. Geological Survey) None

A couple of this region's putative leaders are actually trying to exert some leadership in the long-running dispute over the restoration of Snake River salmon. They're not from Washington. Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber has proposed that all the interested parties — you can call them "stakeholders" or you can call them "vested interests;" he does neither — sit down and work out a salmon restoration plan to finally end 20 years of litigation over the dams.

Environmental groups and tribes that have long wanted the federal government to breach the four lower Snake River dams — and have consistently persuaded the federal courts to reject biological opinions on operation of the federal Columbia River system dams — have responded enthusiastically. “The status quo policies of the federal agencies for wild salmon over the past decade have failed our salmon, communities and region," said Bill Arthur, deputy national field director for the Sierra Club, in a press release. "The path forward that Governor Kitzhaber is suggesting is a badly needed breath of fresh air."

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has chimed in too. “Time and time again we’ve seen that good things happen when folks agree to meet face-to-face and tackle the tough issues facing Oregon," Wyden said. "I’m glad to see that Governor Kitzhaber has taken the initiative and announced his support for a roundtable that will bring together tribes, fishermen, farmers, power customers, conservationists and officials from state and local governments to discuss Northwest salmon issues. This is the kind of collaborative process that the region needs to find a solution to such a thorny issue.”

Four populations of Snake River salmon (sockeye, steelhead, and both spring/summer and fall chinook) have been listed as threatened or endangered. The fish spawn in the mountains of central Idaho, where their spawning habitat is protected by federal wilderness areas. If temperatures increase over the coming decades and other streams become too warm for salmon, it may become the only productive spawning habit left in the entire Columbia River system. But even there the fish haven't fared well.

On a journey to or from the ocean, they must run a gauntlet of eight dams, four on the mainstem Columbia and four on the lower Snake. Those Snake River dams, completed in the 1960s and 1970s, generate electricity, provide pools from which some farmers draw irrigation water, and support a lock system that has made Lewiston, Idaho, 435 miles from the ocean, into a deepwater barge port.

Salmon advocates have long argued that Snake River salmon populations won't recover substantially unless the federal government breaches the lower Snake River dams. The Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Council estimates that the dams could be breached without driving up people's utility bills. But if they were breached, some Washington and Idaho farmers would have to find other ways to get their grain down the river. And the port of Lewiston would be out of luck.

Since the first Snake River salmon population was listed in 1991, the federal government has produced five biological opinions (BiOps) outlining the impact and improvements to the operation of its Columbia River system dams. One was withdrawn voluntarily. The other four have been rejected by the courts. Last year, U.S.District Judge James Redden rejected the National Marine Fishery Service's latest BiOp — prepared by the Bush administration and tweaked but not basically altered under Obama — for operation of the federal Columbia River system hydro dams. Redden gave the feds until Jan. 1, 2014 to come up with something better. That means any serious effort to transcend the status quo must be made next year.

That last BiOp included no serious contingency for breaching the Snake River dams. Rather, it assumed that some improvements in dam operation and largely-uncertain improvements in habitat would be enough to recover the fish. This provided some cover for regional politicians, who wanted to defend the status quo. Inconveniently, it didn't survive judicial scrutiny.


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Fri, Dec 7, 11 a.m. Inappropriate

First good job on writing a comprehensive article, I've yet to see anything like it with the coal debate. The State of Washington does lag behind Oregon and California when it comes to taking environmental action. Orca's , salmon, eagles, wolves, shellfish, shorebirds, are all in the same category as climate change, and Ocean acidification, where we've pushed jobs and commerce as the governing force and ignored the impact, or designed the wild right out of the system. We took all the easy steps, and squandered the abundance of wild life and wild habitat, and now we don't want to face the reality of past decisions. On Wall Street they got a big bail out for investing in bad debt. Well we have already spent future generations resources, and we've removed the habitat that enables recovery. We can't admit we're wrong, we rationalize, and look where that has led too. Here in the NW we don't have a Katrina or Sandy to get people's attention. If we have to fight for nature in the courts, then that will never be enough. The Puget Sound Partnership identifies storm water as the biggest threat, take five years to come up with a plan, and then only come to find many cities and counties saying they can't afford it, but can afford a lawyer to fight it in court.
Continuing to do nothing isn't really an option, but its still the course we're on. The fact that we call doing something "sticking your neck out' kind of points towards the problem.

Blake

Posted Fri, Dec 7, 11:03 a.m. Inappropriate

There is clearly an opportunity to make progress at this particular moment in the political cycles of Washington State and federal government on what has been a very difficult issue in salmon recovery in the northwest. Given this belief, the fact that politicians from Oregon have ventured into the "neutral ground" on the Snake River dams is probably anything but an accident, and provides an entry for pols to both the north and east to reengage on the issue. The situation is ripe, and an approach that convenes all interests and focuses first on desired goals and outcomes ( i.e. salmon recovery, sustainable fishing opportunities and a sustainable economy in the region) rather than strategies and methods (e.g. breeching dams or maintaining an inland port), at least to start, seems appropriate and would be very timely.

While that sounds nice, most if not all of the current players in the debate are bruised and hunkered down from many years of legal scuffles and skirmishes. The situation in the Snake calls for new perspectives, new ideas and new voices. What is needed is a convener to facilitate discussions who has credibility, demonstrated skill at navigating challenging natural resource management issues, and no vested interest or position in the current and ongoing argument. If there were ever moments in time for progress to be made, now is one of them. I encourage those involved to look outside the inner circle for resources and help directed at making tangible progress. The threat of another lawsuit is always around the corner – but if history is a guide, it always seems to lead back to some version of the status quo in the river. Let’s try something different.

Posted Fri, Dec 7, 3:22 p.m. Inappropriate

First, kudos to Kitzhaber. For this and for his efforts to address gill netting in the Columbia by creating off-river options like Young's Bay. Where there is a political leadership vacuum someone will fill it, and he is doing it.

Yes, there may be an opportunity to make progress on the Columbia River fisheries issues. What is not needed, however, is to start the discussion with comments like those of the author:

"The feds have indicated no willingness to move past the failed concepts of the last BiOp. If you read the federal agencies' latest progress report, you'll find that the salmon are doing just fine without breaching"

Loaded language like "the feds," "failed concepts of the last BiOp," and "doing just fine without breaching" only drives us further apart. It is counter-productive to constructive dialogue.

I do not know if breaching the dams would help recover salmon. It might, it might not. I am not a scientist. What I do know is that it cannot occur without an act of Congress. And while the likelihood of that happening can be debated, it is in my opinion very remote.

But put "breaching" on the table. And have our Congressional delegation speak to it. Also look at "selective harvest" like the Colville Tribe is using; techniques that allow harvest of hatchery fish and passage of ESA listed fish.

Let's debate the delayed mortality ghost" that no one has seen" and "barging," "hatchery supplementation," "Canadian harvest", and all the issues that "stakeholders" - otherwise known as "vested interests" - have fought over for the last few decades.

And don't forget the Snake River issues. We need to look at Idaho's State laws that limit water use for anything other than agriculture.

Our fisheries recovery effort is bigger than the fish. It is an industry. It employs 1000's of people, and costs upwards of $800,000 per year. If it is actually working, and policy leaders decide it has value, then "forward march." If not, let's talk about it.

The last time we tried this a decade or so ago. Senator Hatfield's "Salmon Summit" made a great effort at resolving these issues by consensus.

Frankly, I do not know if consensus is ever possible with this much passion and money at stake, let alone the fish. But what political leaders can accomplish is to listen to the competing biological views and then make decisions.

The Power and Conservation Council was assumed to be the decision making body under the Northwest Power Act, but the ESA trumps the Council and the threat of litigation hangs over the ESA and too many are intimidated by it.

A political solution endorsed by the Governors, the Federal agencies, the Tribes, and then ratified by Congress is far preferable.Whether the political will exists to accomplish it is yet to be seen.

But Kudos to Kitzhaber for trying it.

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »