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Saving the Columbia and Snake River salmon

save_salmonA judge overseeing endangered salmon on the Columbia and Snake Rivers is raising the possibility of dam removal. If politics trumps science this time, how can we hope to deal with climate change?
By Paul VanDevelder
July 6, 2009

If ever there were a story that foreshadowed the political and legal Waterloos that loom in seeking solutions to climate change, surely that cautionary tale is the one about the Columbia and Snake rivers' salmon and their imminent extinction. And like most stories about endangered species or environmental threats, this one is not only about fish and rivers -- it's about us.

The policy deadlock that has resulted from the debate among stakeholders along the Columbia and the Snake -- aluminum smelters, the Bonneville Power Administration, politicians, Indian tribes, states, conservation groups, fishermen, barge operators, agribusiness and wheat farmers -- has flushed billions of taxpayer dollars out to sea over the last 15 years while doing very little to prevent 13 endangered salmon stocks from going extinct.

In March, the federal judge responsible for herding all these cats toward a scientifically based solution that meets the requirements of the Endangered Species Act announced that he had heard enough bickering. District Judge James Redden summoned all the stakeholders to his courtroom in Portland, Ore., with the edict to take "aggressive action" and that "now is the time to make that happen."

In addition to being the judge in this case, Redden acts as the government's "special master" for the Columbia River basin, a network of rivers and streams that fans out over an area the size of France. In that role, he has the final say on any proposed changes to fish habitat and the uses of the rivers' payload: water.

At the March meeting in his courtroom, Redden wore both hats and congratulated all sides for getting "very close" to a final rescue plan for the fish. After losing precious years to political infighting and foot-dragging by the Clinton and Bush administrations, Redden noted that much progress had been made in recent years in formulating a workable plan -- "a biological opinion" -- to keep the salmon from becoming extinct.

However, he warned, there were still problems with the plan. For one thing, government scientists had relied too heavily on statistical sleight of hand to support their argument that endangered fish were trending toward recovery. For another, the removal of four dams on the lower Snake River must be included in the recovery plan in case all other remedies fail.

There it was. Out in the open and on the table. Dam removal -- a remedy that the Bush administration had rejected out of hand -- was back in play. Fax machines across the region came to life when Redden's letter reached the stakeholders.

"Federal law doesn't allow dam removal, and no Democrat-politician-turned-activist-judge can rewrite the law," wrote Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) The Northwest River Partners expressed dismay, and the Portland Oregonian's editorial board described Redden's letter as "puzzling."

"The letter is strongly critical of the key strategy in the plan to focus on habitat improvements to offset the harm that federal power-generating dams inflict on fish," the Oregonian wrote, expressing surprise at such a reaction while conveniently ignoring the fact that billions of dollars spent on habitat improvement, fish ladders and barging young fish around dams have done very little to increase salmon populations.

If anything, these measures have lengthened the odds against the salmon's survival by shifting the focus away from more politically explosive solutions, such as dam removal. Redden first issued his warning about the dams in 2004, when he threw out the first Bush rescue plan.

Politicians and stakeholders have steadfastly resisted the painful solution of dam removal while hoping for a miracle. That hope turned out to be a one-way road on a dead-end street, and in many respects they're now blaming the court for their current predicament. With few exceptions, the region's politicians, past and current, have been challenging the recommendations of scientists (including dam removal and increasing the spills over the dams) for more than a decade. Former Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) famously vowed to chain himself to a dam rather than surrender, a prospect relished by many conservation groups.

Throughout this stalemate, fish counts have continued to fall, and the underlying science is clear: In river after river where dams have been removed, native fish populations have rebounded and thrived. As the government's former chief aquatic biologist, Don Chapman, concluded, dam removal is the most effective strategy for saving endangered native fish stocks from extinction.

This was the conclusion reached by the Idaho Statesman newspaper back in 1997 after it conducted a yearlong study of the Snake River dams. The paper reported that the economic benefits of a healthy fishery -- and the resultant tens of thousands of jobs -- would swamp the benefits of leaving the dams in place.

Dozens of reports by natural resources economists have agreed. Among other things, they describe the dams as economic sinkholes, which produce less than 3% of the region's power, do nothing for flood control, irrigate only a handful of big farms and subsidize transportation costs (at the expense of taxpayers and salmon) for wheat farmers in Idaho and eastern Washington.

The Columbia-Snake corridor is the salmon's only option for survival, and Redden is probably their last hope. He is the one person in this entire drama who is legally obligated to use science and the law to protect the fish from extinction and from the whims of politicians. If the law and science are unable to trump politics to save this fishery -- a fishery that was the most productive in the world just two generations ago -- how will we ever meet the towering challenges posed by global climate change?

For the sake of the fish and the 500 other species that depend on this wild and "vital resource" for their survival, many of us hope the judge has the resolve to stay the course and to see the job through.

Paul VanDevelder is the author of "Savages and Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America's Road to Empire Through Indian Territory."




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