The US is open to breaching – even removing – dams to protect the fish
By Matthew Preusch
The U.S. government wants to do more to save Northwest salmon, and faster. And if that doesn’t do enough for the imperiled fish, it will consider breaching one or more dams on the Snake River in Washington, sacrificing power production to help fish swim to and from the sea.
The approach announced Tuesday by the Obama administration for the Columbia River basin’s 13 federally protected runs of salmon and steelhead largely continues a course set last year: Improve river and habitat conditions for fish throughout Oregon, Washington, Montana and Idaho, and help them safely pass the dams.
Significantly, the plan doesn’t call for removing any dams. But it does restore a Clinton-era provision that was deleted by the Bush administration to open that possibility should the fish slip closer to extinction. Electricity ratepayers in the Northwest have paid most of the roughly $1 billion spent annually in helping the signature species.
The government’s intentions Tuesday were hailed as unprecedented by some but mocked by others as a continuance of failing efforts. The state of Oregon said it was disappointed in the White House’s review.
The administration’s most important audience, however, is a federal judge in Portland who has rejected past federal blueprints to save the fish and must decide whether this one rises to the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.
Earlier this year, the administration asked U.S. District Judge James Redden for time to review the Bush-era plan before deciding whether to support it. On Tuesday, it said it would.
Most efforts to offset challenges to salmon have centered on habitat restoration, extensive hatchery operations, barging of young ocean-bound fish around dams, and attempts to provide ample cool water for fish while meeting the demands of farms and growing cities.
But in saying it wanted to continue such efforts, and do so faster, the Obama administration added an “insurance plan” that spells out what it will do –or consider doing –if salmon, at a fraction of their historic numbers, fail to rebound.
In some instances, that could mean sharply curtailing fishing or taking more aggressive actions to improve water flows at dams. At the extreme end, it could mean dam removal.
“We believe the actions in the plan will prevent further declines, but we’ve added these contingencies just in case,” said Jane Lubchenco, the Oregon marine biologist who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“Possible breaching of the Snake River dams remains on the table in this plan, but it is considered a contingency of last resort and would only be implemented if the analysis concludes it would be appropriate and, in fact, beneficial,” Lubchenco said.
The government’s approach, said Lubchenco, acknowledges scientific uncertainties in trying to mount the largest wildlife rescue endeavor in U.S. history.
“I don’t think that it’s problematic at all to say we don’t have all of the knowledge that we’d like to have,” Lubchenco said. “Some things are too new.”
One Washington congressman criticized the administration for re-energizing the debate over dam demolition, an issue that has spanned many governors and U.S. presidents.
“It is such a sad, terrible waste that this battle is being reignited, but let there be no doubt that we’ll fight to save our dams in every way we can. These dams are here to stay,” said Rep. Doc Hastings, whose district includes one of the dams.
But the dam removal provision in Obama’s plan released Tuesday is just “an illusion,” Samuel N. Penney, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe, said in a statement. The tribe, along with the state of Oregon and a coalition of salmon groups, is challenging the plan in court.
“I’m not sure Mr. Hastings should worry himself so much,” said Nicole Cordan, attorney for Save Our Wild Salmon.
As it reviewed the salmon plan this summer, the Obama administration largely ignored the concerns of Oregon and other critics, said Mike Carrier, Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s natural resource adviser. Those concerns centered on maintaining river flows to aid fish.
“The things that we’ve suggested continue to be absent from this plan,” Carrier said.
The administration’s decision Tuesday to largely uphold the Bush-era blueprint breaks with a pattern from recent months in which federal reviews of Bush environmental policies resulted in their being overturned.
Bush’s relaxation of rules governing roadless forests, spotted owl habitat and logging in western Oregon’s federal forests has been tossed out.
But when it comes to Columbia basin salmon, “I would say the new guys in town look a lot like the old guys in town, and I don’t know if that’s enough for Judge Redden or not,” said Michael Blumm, an environmental law professor at Lewis & Clark whose former students are involved on both sides of the court dispute over the plan.
The plan released Tuesday promises an additional $40 million for 21 habitat projects in the river estuary, where the massive Columbia meets the sea.
It also ramps up research on how fish are responding to recovery efforts, commits NOAA to building a new mathematical model to predict salmon population trends, and looks more deeply at the role predators and non-native species play in salmon survival. Steve Wright, administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration, which funds most of the salmon projects, said the administration’s adjustments to the plan would cost an additional $6 million a year on top of the roughly $100 million it already costs to implement.
“We have hopefully reached the end of a long litigation road presided over by this court for nearly a decade, spanning two prior administrations,” U.S. attorneys wrote in their court filing Tuesday.
Matthew Preusch: 503-294-7689; email@example.com; Twitter: @mpreusch