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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."
Washington politicians' failure to admit that the current system doesn't work or to publicly contemplate anything different says a lot, too. Does Washington's Congressional delegation have anything new to offer? Washington's gubernatorial candidates certainly didn't. Eastern Washington Congressman Doc Hastings has made it clear that he won't even consider breaching. Some other politicians pretend one can restore the salmon runs without seriously altering the status quo — if they say anything at all. And some — Murray and Cantwell — have reportedy worked behind the scenes to limit scientific review of the government's salmon strategies.
In addition to fudging the science, the Bush Administration made a deal — in fact, a whole series of deals — to help the last biological opinion survive. The state of Washington got $40-odd million in federal money to improve habitat on the north side of the Columbia River estuary. The Warm Springs, Yakama and Umatilla tribes and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation recently signed an agreement with the Bonneville Power Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation that gave the tribes a billion dollars over ten years for habitat and hatcheries. The states of Idaho and Montana got habitat money, too. The quid pro quo was supporting the status quo, which meant not challenging the BiOp in court, or speaking ill of it in public.
The attempt to guarantee a future much like the past didn't work. The feds couldn't buy everyone off. The State of Oregon, the Nez Perce tribe and the non-sovereign plaintiffs carried on the suit against the BiOp. And the feds couldn't buy the federal courts, in which those plaintiffs ultimately won. So the region now faces a choice between backing another attempt to justify the status quo or figuring out Plan B.
The Nez Perce addressed all this in a September letter to Idaho Senator Mike Crapo. "The [Nez Perce] Tribe believes that among the lessons learned in the most recent round of this longstanding litigation are two that should strike all parties, on all sides — and perhaps collaborative political leaders such as you even more — as particularly significant," tribal vice- chair Brooklyn Baptiste wrote.
"First," Baptiste observed, "operational plans that address the concerns of only a segment of stakeholders in a complex matter of litigation do not work. . . . Second, the long-term certainty that was the apparent intention of the accords signed by many state and tribal sovereigns [whose support for the BiOp the federal government basically bought] does not exist. The . . . District Court's recent ruling concludes that the present plan of operations for the lower Snake River and mainstem hydro system does not satisfy the law."
The tribe, like Kitzhaber, argued for getting everyone around a table. It believes, Baptiste wrote, that "there will be value in establishing a stakeholder 'solutions table' to explore all scientifically-sound options and to help develop recommendations to the Administration and Congress."
Some private citizens have argued for the same thing. "I grew up in Eastern Washington fishing and hunting with my father on the Snake River Breaks, now under stagnant reservoirs," wrote Chris Kopczynski, a native of Eastern Washington and the second-generation president of a Spokane building contractor established in 1946, wrote in the Spokane Spokesman-Review "As a business owner and taxpayer," Kopczynski wrote, "I’m appalled at the billions spent on half-hearted recovery programs by foot-dragging federal agencies. ... Litigation should be a last option. But . . .litigation gets credit for most of the progress made for salmon."
Now, he argued, "there’s a better way: a science-guided stakeholder process in which fishermen and farmers, energy users and shippers, conservationists and businesses develop solutions together, in an open process, with support and leadership from Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray. Such a process could assess the science of spill, dam removal and other recovery measures, along with the economic costs and benefits of these measures versus the status quo."
Why have Washington's politicians — with the notable exception of Representative Doc Hastings, an outspoken defender of the dams — said so little about this issue? One can argue that they're in a no-win political situation. Arguably, Kitzhaber and Wyden face a much less complicated balancing act than do politicians from Washington state. None of their consituents relies on the lower Snake River dams for barging or irrigation. (And the liberal environmentalists of metropolitan Portland are close to the river, while those of metropolitan Seattle are far away.) Under the circumstances, it's relatively easy to be statesmanlike — which doesn't change the fact that they're the only elected officials acting remotely like statesmen.
But they're not the only regional politicians to suggest a conversation. In fact, Kitzhaber's op-ed echoed earlier calls to sit everyone down and put everything on the table. Three years ago, Idaho Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, both Republicans, and Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, called on the administration to set up such a conversation.
That hardly sounds radical. How can anyone object to assembling everybody with a vested interest in the river to talk about a solution? (Make that a narrow vested interest; all U.S. citizens have an interest in the hydro system, and in the threatened and endangered fish.) It's hard to argue against just talking. But one can guess where such a discussion might go. Virtually everyone can be made whole. All it takes is federal money — and a willingness to at least consider throwing Snake River barging interests under the bus.
Maybe restoring Snake River salmon runs would require breaching the lower Snake dams. Maybe it wouldn't. If the dams went, there would be other ways of getting grain downriver to Portland and other ports. But there would be no way to barge them there from Lewiston.
Let's hear it, briefly, for the defenders of Snake River barge traffic. Critics speak scornfully of Lewiston, more than 400 miles from the sea, functioning as a deepwater port. It's absurd. Of course, it is. But how about building a city of 15 million people in a semi-desert? That's Los Angeles. And no one is going to breach the aqueducts that keep it in business. Or turn Phoenix back to the desert anytime soon. Here in the West, there's plenty of geo-political illogic. We have made the desert bloom with crops in California, Arizona, Utah, the Columbia Basin, and with buildings in LA, Phoenix, Las Vegas. Lewiston's tenure as a deepwater port seems shaky not because it's so ridiculous, but because it's ridiculous and relatively small-time.
Nevertheless, it endures. One can argue that the political strategy followed by most of the region's Senators, Representatives and Governors — and the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama — has been wildly successful. More than 20 years after the first Snake River salmon population was listed, the status quo remains largely intact. If the history of such things gives any indication of the future, the new biological opinion due by New Years of 2014 will just kick off more years of litigation and negotiation.
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