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    Feds' latest Columbia River plan: Play me an old-fashioned melody

    News analysis: Hopes and vague promises didn't fly with Bush administration courts, or even two years ago. But here we go again.
    Tagged chinook salmon are released near the Lower Monumental Dam on the Snake River, one that is discussed for removal.

    Tagged chinook salmon are released near the Lower Monumental Dam on the Snake River, one that is discussed for removal. NOAA/Wikimedia Commons

    Will the fifth time be the charm? Probably not.

    The federal government has just come out with a new biological opinion (BiOp) on how to conduct the operations of its Columbia River system dams. The feds have been issuing Columbia River BiOps since Bill Clinton sat — and did whatever else he did — in the White House. And for all that time, the federal courts have been slapping them down.

    The newest version was unveiled on January 17. It looks remarkably similar to the last one, which was prepared by the administration of George W. Bush and repackaged with little substantive change by Obama officials. United States District Judge James Redden rejected that Bush-Obama hybrid document in 2011.

    If history provides a guide, this new BiOp will soon be the target of litigation by conservation groups and it, too, will eventually be tossed out by the courts. “Unfortunately,” said Save Our Wild Salmon executive director Joseph Bogaard in a press release, "this latest blueprint is virtually indistinguishable from the plan rejected by the district court in 2011."

    If, as they say, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again but expecting a different result, those people at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS, aka NOAA Fisheries) must be a pretty wacky bunch. Or not. The feds have basically tried to preserve business as usual. Through two decades of court losses, they have largely managed to do so.

    How did we get here? The background may be somewhat familiar, but worth recalling in what has become a court fight with a life cycle as predictable as that of the salmon. Here goes:

    1. The Columbia River system drains a quarter-million square miles, an area roughly as large as France. The Columbia itself rises in British Columbia, 1,200 river miles from the Pacific, and is joined at the Tri Cities by its largest tributary, the Snake, which rises in Wyoming.

    2. For millennia, the Columbia was the greatest chinook salmon river in the world. Up to 15 million wild salmon of all species made their way up the river to spawn.

    3. Tribes all along the river caught, dried and ate the salmon.

    4. Because it drops so far (roughly half a vertical mile) on its journey from the mountains to the sea, the Columbia has more hydroelectric potential than any other river in North America. From the 1930s to the 1970s, the federal government built a series of dams on the Columbia and its tributaries, including the Snake.

    5. Those dams, known collectively as the Federal Columbia River Power System, still generate some 40 percent of the electricity used in the Northwest — some of it in Seattle and Bellevue — and enable tugs and barges to travel all the way to Idaho.

    6. The dams blocked salmon passage to and from salt water. Some were built with fish ladders. Others weren't. Once the dams went in, the numbers of fish plummeted. This came as no great surprise.

    7. Dams haven't been the salmon's only problems. Columbia River salmon runs were clearly being overfished by the late 1800s. Much of the river's estuary has been filled in. Spawning streams have been affected by farming, ranching and development. To increase survival rates, for many years the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has trucked young salmon downstream around the dams. Federal, state and tribal hatcheries have pumped out many millions of fish. The river still supports only a fraction of its former runs.

    8. Starting in 1991 with the red fish (sockeye) of Idaho's Redfish Lake, Columbia and Snake river salmon populations have been listed as threatened and endangered species.

    9. Because of this, the federal government has had to issue biological opinions on whether or not operation of the dam system will jeopardize their recovery.

    10. Four BiOps have already been rejected by federal courts.

    No one has decided yet to sue over this version, but a bet in favor of litigation would seem less a gamble than an investment. As the newest act in this long-running drama plays out, though, there are some themes to remember.

    Like its predecessor, this BiOp relies heavily on habitat improvements rather than changes in dam operation; the court may or may not be convinced that these improvements will really happen — or that they will produce the benefits that the federal agencies predict.

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    Posted Mon, Jan 27, 9:05 a.m. Inappropriate

    Thanks for a great article on a topic of great importance to NW jobs, culture, and environment. Something I have never understood, but have kept failing to ask until now, if all the previous plans have been rejected in court, how does NOAA keep getting allowed to create more failing plans? Why aren't they ordered to stop wasting everyone's time and only come back with a plan that has the elements that won't fail? And if necessary why aren't the required elements spelled out to them or as you suggest have the court take partial control of river management? I know very little about legal matters but it seems in most other proceedings you wouldn't be given free reign to keep failing 4 or more times. And what about the waste of taxpayer dollars from allowing this Groundhog Day charade?
    At one point in the article you state the following:
    "Fish advocates have long wanted to see those dams breached and have called for a hard-nosed balancing of their economic benefits against their environmental costs."
    I think what is needed is a hard-nosed balancing of the economic and environmental benefits with breaching and without breaching. I think such a study would show that breaching the dams would have many economic benefits including commercial and recreational fishing jobs, recreation/tourism jobs, savings from not dredging behind the dams, as well as environmental benefits and more that would exceed the shrinking benefits of not breaching.
    Thanks again for giving this important issue attention.

    Posted Mon, Jan 27, 11:25 a.m. Inappropriate

    Additional jobs not mentioned by Snake River dam breaching can also include the new construction and operations of coal-fired power generating plants and the attendant expanded coal mining and transportation opportunities to make up the lost hydro-power from these four dams as well as new rail and heavy-haul trucking to replace the lost barging cargo capacity from a shallower Snake River. Conversely, that lost hydro-power could be made up from nukes.


    Posted Mon, Jan 27, 10 a.m. Inappropriate

    The article states: "Killer whales live all over he world. The orca pods that hang out in Puget Sound are distinct and therefore worthy of federal protection because they don't interbreed with other groups, and they have their own culture: their own linguistic peculiarities, their own cuisine."

    I hope that readers are taking such words as "culture," "linguistic," and "cuisine," when applied to whales or to any other non-human species, as anthropomorphic metaphors belying the author's use of 'poetic license.' If not--and if the author intends for these words to be taken quite literally--, then I just want to point out that this is not settled science; there is a lot of scientific (and philosophic) controversy surrounding such claims.

    Posted Mon, Jan 27, 12:14 p.m. Inappropriate

    "Recent research suggests that the killer whales may need nourishment badly in the spring, when huge chinook runs once swam back through their range to the Columbia. If we want to restore the orca population, we may have to (at least partially) restore those salmon runs."

    There are hundreds of thousands of hatchery Chinook swimming through the whales range. I'm sure they don't care if they eat a hatchery fish.

    BTW, the fish pic posted is of coho, not Chinook.

    Posted Tue, Jan 28, 9:23 a.m. Inappropriate

    A response to seebee. Several studies have already shown that the cheapest way to make up for the lost energy output from the dams is to expand the very successful energy efficiency programs that utilities in the NW have been running for decades. Those programs have already saved more than the output of those dams. As for coal it is dying a slow death in the US, due to cheaper natural gas, cheaper energy efficiency, and people who want their children to have a future where climate change is not so extreme. Nuclear is not likely to grow very much due to high cost and long time to build plants. In the time it could take to license and build a nuke it is very likely that solar PV and wind will be cheaper in most of the NW and one of the many promising storage technologies will be cost effective. In the mean time to bridge the gap in the next 5 - 10 years, we have energy efficiency and natural gas plants which are lowest cost and low carbon output.

    Posted Tue, Jan 28, 4:41 p.m. Inappropriate

    There are several reasons why the plan is largely unchanged. First, the plan has been implemented despite the litigation and the fish returns are trending upward significantly, indicating that the plan is working. Second, all 8 mainstem dams are on target to or have met the performance standards, so there isn't much left to do with the hydrosystem (which is specifically what the plan addresses). This is why the plan is largely focused on habitat. Third, the judge - a biased judge I might add who made his bias clear after he 'retired' from the case - wanted the federal agencies to show whether the plan was working. If it wasn't, THEN he wanted the federal agencies to consider more extreme actions such as dam removal. The plan IS working, which is why it is largely unchanged.

    The fact is, there are MANY reasons why the fish numbers have declined over the last 100 years and each and every one of those reasons must be addresed. It is not just the dams that caused the problems. When the dams were built, everyone - including the tribes - felt that hatcheries would save the day from already poor salmon runs. It wasn't until the mid 20th century that people began to realize that hatcheries would not save the day. In the 80s, the federal operators began to study ways to fix it. These fish have a long life history and gathering data to fix the problem was no simple, quick task. Here we are in the early days of the 21st century and after over $13 billion has been spent, we are finally seeing a return on our efforts. This is something to celebrate, and yet where are the conservationists?

    This is THE largest restoration effort in the world in our history. And NW citizens are paying the bills for it. When is it time to say we accomplished our goal, that this level of spending is enough? Over 20% of my electric bill goes to saving the salmon. I personally think that is plenty to get the job done. It's not as if the salmon are going to go extinct now. If they haven't gone extinct in the last 100 years, they aren't going to in the next 100 years!

    Posted Wed, Jan 29, 9:02 a.m. Inappropriate

    I endorse Sally's comments.

    The issue of "more salmon to feed the 0rcas" is a new one?

    I assume NOAA was responding to a comment and did not propose this? But to whoever did so, A+ for creativity

    Posted Wed, Jan 29, 10:28 a.m. Inappropriate

    The issue isn't whether to restore tributary habitat -- that's a no-brainer from an environmental perspective. The question is whether still struggling salmon populations like Snake River spring/summer Chinook and Upper Columbia Chinook would benefit from more "spill" over the dams in addition to tributary restoration where it's feasible (some Snake River fish already have pristine tributary habitat). A consortium of federal (USFWS) and state biologists concludes that more spill could be sufficient to not only keep those fish on life support, but get them back to reasonable abundance. While BPA might disagree, it's not going out on a limb to argue that such a goal is in line with the spirit and letter of the Endangered Species Act.


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