Columbia River dams determined no jeopardy for fish

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PORTLAND, Ore. - A recent front-page piece in The New York Times nailed it:
"The Bush administration ruled out the possibility of removing federal dams
on the Columbia and Snake rivers to protect 11 endangered species of salmon
and steelhead, even as a last resort. In an opinion issued by the fisheries
division of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration
(NOAA), the government declared that the eight large dams on the lower
rivers were an immutable part of the salmon's environment."

Fish ladders enable returning adult salmon to move upriver through the
gauntlet of the dams, but it is the downstream migration of juvenile fish
that is at issue. The government's plan states that continued reliance on
barging juveniles through the system as well as installing a new technology
that will funnel the small fish over the dams via a water slide will
suffice to counter the effects of the hydropower projects. Thus, instead of
allowing for removal as a last resort like the Clinton administration did,
the current administration argues that endangered fish can be protected by
these other means, and the $6 billion price tag for the 10-year effort is
only slightly more than current expenditures for the fishery.

Bob Lohn of NOAA's Northwest regional office, who signed off on the new
biological opinion, said that the policy does not suggest that dams don't
harm salmon or that measures need to be taken to offset damages. Further,
Lohn expressed interest in working with regional groups that represent
salmon and steelhead.

The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRIT-FC) doesn't buy it.
"Under this opinion, the dams have become part of the environmental
baseline just like a waterfall or some other natural feature," said CRITFC
Executive Director Olney Patt Jr. "We are very disturbed that NOAA
Fisheries has gone against the greater body of opinion in the region -
science, law, the tribes, the states and the environmental community."

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) requires any federal agency proposing
action that might affect an ESA-listed species ensure that no undue harm
will come to the protected species. The agency must also seek the expert
opinion of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) or NOAA Fisheries.
Because the salmon are anadromous and range from their home tributaries in
the Columbia and Snake rivers several hundred miles up and down the Pacific
coastline, they fall under the purview of NOAA Fisheries.

Both NOAA Fisheries and the USFWS regularly issue Biological Opinions to
any federal agency undertaking actions that might impinge on an ESA-listed
species. The two agencies have hundreds of Biological Opinions in place in
the Columbia Basin for large and small actions. What makes this latest
opinion exceptionally controversial is that it's a highly critical one that
affects the actions of the three federal agencies that control the dams on
the Columbia and Snake Rivers - the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of
Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration.

Moreover, the 2004 Biological Opinion, as it is termed, was issued because
in 2003 Judge James Redden of the Oregon Federal District Court determined
the opinion was faulty and ordered NOAA Fisheries to revise the opinion it
issued in 2000 - the now notorious 2000 Biological Opinion.

In other words, the agency in charge of guarding the hen house - NOAA
Fisheries - was found by a court of law to be remiss in its duty and sent
back to the drawing board. Now it has produced a plan that if anything is
more onerous to the salmon community than the initial opinion NOAA tried to
advance 2000.

So, with a new year ahead of us, parties to the Columbia River salmon
debate are gearing up for a new round of contests over the fate of the
region's once great fishery. The National Wildlife Federation is
considering litigation as is CRITFC. "Right now we are still in the comment
period," said Patt. "We're sure NOAA Fisheries is going to receive a lot of
negative feedback from the states and the scientific and environmental
communities. The opinion will almost certainly wind up back in federal
district court before Judge Redden."

It's interesting that NOAA Fisheries felt it necessary to issue such a
sweeping ultimatum on the dams - particularly the four lower ones on the
Lower Snake River. Those projects went in during the 1960s and 1970s well
after the other hydroelectric dams in the Columbia Basin. The lower Snake
installations were never critical to the power system and only built for
navigation - for barge traffic that boosters hoped would turn Lewiston,
Idaho, 465 miles inland from the Pacific, into a port city.

According to historian Keith Petersen who authored "River of Life, Channel
of Death: Fish and Dams on the Snake River", the whole scheme was the
brainchild of Lewiston booster, Herbert G. West. West lavished regal
dinners on his cronies in Washington, D.C. and pulled the deal off - got
the four lower dams erected on the Snake amid a huge outcry. West's dream
of Lewiston as a thriving port city didn't pan out though. The job of
shipping the Inland Empire's wheat out through Lewiston never brought the
wealth West anticipated. Instead the nation's tax payers got stuck with the
bill and to date the region remains stuck with the dams.

Prior to Euro-American settlement in the 1850s, the salmon returned to the
Columbia from their ocean journey at an estimated 14-16 million. A mere 150
years later, however, the runs are only a shadowy remnant of their former
glory. The anadromous fishery has been decimated by the rise of the
hydropower dams beginning in the 1930s, over-fishing of the most egregious
nature, and the destruction of once pristine habitat conditions in the
tributaries by erosion and pollution from farming, ranching, forestry and
municipal growth.

In sum, mainstream society has placed higher value on earning profits from
electricity, beef, wheat, wood products and growing cities than it has on
ensuring the survival of the salmon and steelhead. Perhaps if Americans'
burgers were made from salmon instead of cows, the picture would be
different.

Nonetheless, as Patt said, "While I do see this opinion as a step backwards
in the process, the tribes in general have always taken the approach that
we'll do whatever is necessary to recover the salmon. We will always live
here. We're in this for the long haul - seven generations, and we're going
to get there. We feel like we're firmly planted in sound science and law.
And we are willing to stay the course."