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.
Redden rejected the BiOp because it relied heavily on habitat improvements that hadn't even been identified, much less found likely to work. He didn't even have to deal with other problems that he had already discussed in letters to the attorneys in the case. But presumably, if the feds want to create a BiOp that will survive the federal courts next time around, they will have to deal with those problems sooner or later.
Most regional and national politicians shy away from using the "B" word, but it's hard to believe that the courts will approve a biological opinion that doesn't present dam-breaching as a serious option. Even before Redden tossed the last BiOp, he had told lawyers in the case that he wanted at least 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."
The judge wasn't the only one who thought breaching should be on the table. Around the time Redden remanded the BiOp to the feds, the Western Division of the American Fisheries Society resolved 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."
The Kitzhaber statement stands out in part because there is so little news to report about the situation. 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.The report hails "marked improvements in survival of juvenile spring chinook and steelhead" at The Dalles, McNary and Bonneville dams, noting that "travel time for juvenile salmon and steelhead migrating through the hydrosystem was among the fastest scientists have observed.
NOAA believes this is likely due to high levels of flow in 2011 and the continued use of spill and surface bypass at the dams." The feds didn't acknowledge that the spring spill had been ordered by the federal court. They also somehow failed to note that in 2010 the feds were going to cut it short, until the weight of scientific opinion against them made it clear that they were going to lose in court, and they decided to keep spilling water without a new court order.
The report is "basically a couple hundred page commercial for the action agencies," says Earthjustice attorney Steve Mashuda. "The problem we've always had," Mashuda says, is that "they've set these performance standards based on things they knew they could achieve." In this case, "we've been achieving those standards for years, based only on spill."
Mashuda sees this year's progress report as just more of the same. "Lo and behold," he says, "they come out this year with another report that says 'we're meeting our dam passage requirements; we're doing a great job.'" Not only is the fact that litigation forced the feds to spill water over the dams not mentioned; the report also obscures the fact that "survival over the concrete . . . doesn't tell you anything about total survival through the system."
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