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 elected George Bush 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 table.
Now, the messy and politically charged issue is dropped
into the lap of George W. Bush, who campaigned against dam
breaching. He must endure the hammer of 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 salmon nor the timber industry; Bill
Clinton exploited the uncertainty over logging jobs and won both
Oregon and Washington.
A consensus of scientists says the
four dams on the Snake River limit the recovery of salmon and
steelhead that spawn upstream in Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Even
as a cyclical improvement in food availability and low predator
numbers in the ocean has allowed salmon numbers to rise through the
region, the Snake River’s wild fish have only been able to
hold their own.
Clinton had approved a survival 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 breaching in 2005 and 2008. That is why
Judge Redden’s decision resurrects the West’s biggest
battle over the future of its rivers.
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.
will continue to call for a comprehensive economic analysis of the
costs of breaching dams. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers analysis
in 2001 was incomplete by design. The Rand Corp. said removing four
dams on the lower Snake River might be good for the region's
economy or, at worst, have no impact. The 2002 report also said
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 the losers whole. That
means offsetting the loss of shipping; that means paying off the
few farmers who would need to build new irrigation pumps.
Judge Redden’s decision is not all good for salmon. The old
plan encouraged both state and private voluntary efforts to improve
habitat throughout the Pacific Northwest. For many salmon runs that
don’t have to pass through the four dams, these programs are
pivotal to the fishes’ recovery. A new plan might abandon
Judge Redden could choose to challenge
Congress and 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
such 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. Remember,
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.