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    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.

    (Page 2 of 5)

    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."

    Mashuda says that delayed mortality is "kind of the elephant in the room in any discussion of the hydro system." That is, even if the fish do well on their passage downstream, when they come back, the more dams separate them from their spawning streams, the fewer of them survive. Mashuda argues that "the absence of information . . . says more than the information provided."

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    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.


    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.

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