Many in the Northwest thought they’d killed the idea of breaching four dams on the Snake River in Washington when they convinced the Clinton administration to pass on it, and then George W. Bush became president. They celebrated too soon.
On May 7, U.S. District Judge James
Redden in Portland threw out the salmon-protection plan written by
the Clinton administration and tossed dam-breaching back on the
Now, the messy and politically charged issue has
been dropped into the lap of President Bush, who campaigned against
dam breaching. He must confront the Endangered Species Act, the law
that caused his father to lose the Pacific Northwest in
Let’s recap. The elder Bush could find no easy
way out of a similar court decision in 1989, over the management of
the northern spotted owl. He convened the Endangered Species
Committee — the so-called God Squad, made up of officials in
his administration — to overrule the law’s strict
regulations. In the end, he saved neither owls nor the timber
industry. Bill Clinton then exploited the uncertainty over logging
jobs and won both Oregon and Washington.
the four dams on the Snake River limit the recovery of salmon and
steelhead that spawn upstream in Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Even
as an increase in food and low predator numbers in the ocean have
allowed salmon numbers to rise elsewhere in the region, the Snake
River’s wild fish have only been able to hold their
Clinton had approved a plan in 2000 that included a
suite of habitat, hydro and hatchery improvements to save 12 stocks
of endangered salmon and steelhead without removing the dams. But
if these didn’t work, the plan called for reconsidering dam
breaching in 2005 and 2008. That is why Judge Redden’s
decision resurrects the biggest battle over the future of the
If salmon advocates get their way,
the judge will require Idaho farmers to send more water down the
Snake to help salmon migrate. They will press for tough regulations
that threaten shipping to Portland and upstream. Expect them to
join force with right-wing opponents of public power, who want the
Bonneville Power Administration, which sells the power from the
dams, brought under heel.
They also will continue to call
for a comprehensive economic analysis of the costs of breaching
dams. A 2002 report by the Rand Corp. said removing four dams on
the lower Snake River might be good for the region’s economy;
at the worst, it would likely have no impact. The report predicted
that replacing power from the dams would create almost 15,000 new
Despite these facts in their favor, I think the only
way environmentalists are going to convince the public to remove
the dams is to get Congress to make amends to those who will lose
out if the dams are breached. That means offsetting the loss of
shipping; that means paying off the few farmers who would need to
buy new irrigation pumps.
Judge Redden’s decision is
not all good for salmon. The Clinton plan encouraged both state and
private voluntary efforts to improve habitat throughout the Pacific
Northwest. These programs are pivotal to recovery of many salmon
runs that don’t have to pass through the four dams. A new
plan might abandon these efforts.
Judge Redden could
require the dams to come down. Some say there is legal precedent.
But I think it is unlikely. The political reality is that a
majority of voters in the region do not support breaching the four
dams. Until the coalition supporting wild salmon can build a
consensus, the dams will remain intact.
It is true that
most voters in the region prize salmon as the physical
manifestation of the region’s wild character. And it is true
that President Bush lost both states in the last election, despite
a strong showing from Ralph Nader. So what can Bush do? He can seek
the most efficient, low-cost method of saving salmon and meeting
the power and shipping needs of the region. He can work with the
governors and tribal governments to develop a new process for
writing a plan that is inclusive and realistic.
Or, he can
choose the path of his father and try to exempt salmon from the
Endangered Species Act.
Look where that got Dad.