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Are the feds simply shielding Columbia River dams from wrecking balls?

The Obama administration keeps recycling Bush-era Columbia River policies, and it keeps losing. What's the deal?
A Chinook spawns in a Washington state river.

A Chinook spawns in a Washington state river. Photo: Dan Hershman

First of two articles

In the words of the former New York Yankees catcher and manager Yogi Berra, "it's deja vu all over again." In mid-June, the National Wildlife Federation and an array of other environmental and fishing groups filed a complaint in federal court alleging that the federal government's Biological Opinion (BiOp) on the operation of the Columbia River dams violates federal law. The feds have been issuing these Columbia River BiOps since the Clinton administration. Conservation groups, fishing groups, tribes and the state of Oregon have been challenging them — and prevailing.

Courts have shot down four BiOps so far. The BiOp issued in 2010 was much like the one issued in 2008 (deja vu). The BiOp issued this year is much like the one issued in 2010 (deja vu all over again). Yogi nailed it.

When the current BiOp came out in January, little had changed from the version that a federal court struck down in 2011 — it was clearly just a matter of time before the usual plaintiffs came back to make some of the usual arguments. "We've talked with [the Bonneville Power Administration], we've talked with the [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers], we've talked a lot with Washington state.in order to set the table for a collaborative negotiation," says Save Our Wild Salmon executive director Joseph Bogaard, but it hasn't worked. Everyone is back in court.

True, the past doesn't necessarily provide a roadmap to the future. True, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released the BiOp, it proclaimed that "improvements at federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers, rehabilitation of habitat, and other actions are benefiting federally protected salmon and steelhead as much as or more than anticipated five years ago." Still, based on the historical record, one would be foolish not to anticipate the usual results.

There are, however, two ways to view the repetition of results. On one hand, the federal defendants haven't taken a single round in court. On the other, they haven't had to fundamentally change the system. "If the defendants define delay as victory," Bogaard says, "then they're winning."

The focus of all these ponderous BiOps and all these years of litigation has been the impact of dam operations on the Columbia River system's threatened and endangered salmon populations. There are 13 of them, the first of which was listed for federal protection in 1991. How does the Columbia River dam system (which includes dams along the Snake River) affect the fish? How will the feds mitigate the effects and restore the populations?

(Although the BiOp overview talks of avoiding "the likelihood of jeopardizing the continued existence of 13 listed salmon and steelhead species," the Endangered Species Act calls for recovery, not mere survival, of listed species. The Bush administration invented the concept of "trending toward recovery," which has not yet been adjudicated but survives in this BiOp.)

The plaintiffs argue, as they always have, that the feds aren't doing and don't plan to do enough. This threatens the recovery not only of salmon populations, but also of endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales, which some prefer to call Puget Sound orcas. The orcas eat salmon. They prefer to eat big, fatty Chinook salmon. They evolved near the Columbia, which was the greatest Chinook river in the world. In its recovery plan for Southern Resident Killer Whales, NOAA has acknowledged that "perhaps the single greatest change in food availability for resident killer whales since the late 1800s has been the decline of salmon from the Columbia River basin."

And yet ... the BiOp recognizes the relationship, but argues that business as usual is all the endangered sea mammals need. Hatcheries will more than make up for the Chinook currently lost at the dams, so the orcas' food supply won't decline. But the plaintiffs argue that NOAA has chosen the wrong baseline. The BiOp doesn't confront the fact that the current number of salmon supports a small and dwindling number of killer whales. To support more orcas — to restore the orca population, as the law requires — we will presumably need more salmon.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Jul 23, 9:45 a.m. Inappropriate

"... violates federal law."

Ha. Good one.

BlueLight

Posted Wed, Jul 23, 3:12 p.m. Inappropriate

Agree with most of this, except the idea that more spill at the dams may be enough to recover salmon / steelhead. Climate change predications and the resulting increase in water temperatures, increase in nonp-native species, and decrease in water quality on the Snake River (due mostly to the dams and stagnant reservoirs) will not enable recovery even with more spill. The four lower Snake River Dams must be removed to solve this problem and "recover" wild fisheries (including eliminating unsustainable trap and haul "enhancement" around the dams).

MWS

Posted Wed, Jul 23, 4:08 p.m. Inappropriate

Meanwhile, wild fish are doing better and better all the time with the dams in place thanks to all the money spent to make those dams more passable for fish. Maybe someday downline dam removal will be a good idea, but that day is far, far away. Not likely in my lifetime and I still have another 50-60 years of life in me!

Posted Wed, Jul 23, 5:07 p.m. Inappropriate

Depends on which fish stock you are talking about. The Idaho Sockeye run is still terrible, and that's the issue for the Snake river dams.

GaryP

Posted Wed, Jul 23, 4:05 p.m. Inappropriate

The deal is (to answer your question) that the fish runs are doing better and better all the time, thanks to this so-called flawed BiOp. And the previous judge who was remanding those BiOps had a clear bias toward Snake River dam removal.

While the enviros and fishermen keep litigating, the rest of the region is working hard on implementing the projects in the BiOp. The efforts seem to be working as more and more fish - both hatchery and wild fish - return with every decade. It's just a matter of time before the fish runs can sustain themselves again and we can still have our precious, clean, and RELIABLE dams!

Meanwhile, the enviros keep suing. They don't seem to care that the BiOp actions are bringing the fish back. Their hidden agenda is clearly out in the open. They want dam removal, which the majority of NW residents do not support.

Posted Wed, Jul 23, 5:12 p.m. Inappropriate

" They want dam removal, which the majority of NW residents do not support. "

That of course depends on which dam(s) you are talking about. The Snake river dams are going to be removed. Their economic value is in shipping grain from the heartland of WA and there is some value in that because historically the railroads have gouged the farmers. So with a three way alternative, barge, rail or truck there is still some negociation power with the farmers. But the Feds could fix it and force the railroads to be reasonable in their charge per ton.

The only real question about all of these dams is when. Do we wait until they fail and then not fix them forcing their removal? Or do we take them out before the strutures fail.

Clearly some dams are necessary both for power generation and flood control but as the concrete ages all of them will be up for discussion.

GaryP

Posted Wed, Jul 23, 4:11 p.m. Inappropriate

It sure would be nice if Danial Chasan could write an unbiased story on this issue. There are two sides here. Looking through the articles he has written over the past few years on this subject, I can't see that he ever told the whole story. Maybe he might include the arguments of the other side in his future salmon stories???

Posted Wed, Jul 23, 5:16 p.m. Inappropriate

That would be nice. I'd like to hear the stance from the Tribes.

GaryP

Posted Wed, Jul 23, 10:04 p.m. Inappropriate

Sally, if the previous judge had a bias towards dam removal, he showed it in a funny way, since he never did anything to make dam removal happen. Or even more likely. He scolded the defendants and then let them repeat their mistakes over and over again.
Regarding a year or two of strong returns, it is indeed somewhat heartening. It is far more attributable to the higher spill ordered over BPA's objections than it is to the BiOp. The latter is relying mostly on long-term investments in habitat. Not only are the defendants behind schedule in making those investments, but the fruits of the efforts won't be enjoyed for several generations of fish. It's important work, certainly, but slow and long-term and pretty uncertain.

nonydog

Posted Thu, Jul 24, 7:55 a.m. Inappropriate

Dammed if we do and dammed if we don't. So long as the red carpet remains rolled out for illegal immigrants (tuition, anyone?), then NOTHING we do will "save" PNW salmon and their habitats. Researchers at Oregon State University have determined the NUMBER ONE THREAT to PNW salmon is population growth; the majority of which comes via immigration from outside the U.S. and Canada. Does the "author, attorney and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues" believe we can have our cake and eat it, too? Or is he simply shielding his readers from an inconvenient truth?

BlueLight

Posted Tue, Jul 29, 8:40 a.m. Inappropriate

Strawman. No one is talking about taking our "..all dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers".

The four lower Snake River dams, however, are prime candidates for removal. They provide very little power, are old, have significant effects on salmon passage (up and downstream), and only afford benefits to a minority industry. Seriously - so Lewiston ID can be a port? Rail will easily replace the subsidy of barges.

Treker

Posted Sun, Jul 27, 2:46 p.m. Inappropriate

Removing all dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers would have tremendous negative economic impacts. This is more likely 1) a back-and-forth on "to spill or not to spill?" on the lower Columbia dams and 2) the beginning of a debate over the economic value of the upper Snake dams vis-a-vis a recovered Sockeye run if those dams were to be removed. Framing this simply as a black and white dams vs. salmon (and, by extenttion, orcas) debate does a disservice to what are complicated issues.

Posted Tue, Jul 29, 10:51 a.m. Inappropriate

The Snake Rive dams are some of the newest dams on the river. You don't like the travel backups caused by trains today? Think what it would be with more grain trains on the tracks.

Granger

Posted Wed, Jul 30, 12:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Interesting, I'd say, then, that farmers are already making the switch to rail or truck transport as the more efficient option.

http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2021636038_snakeriverxml.html

Treker

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