Amid the drumbeat of litigation that surrounds Columbia River salmon and the ever-present debate over dam-breaching, it's easy to miss one remarkable achievement: We now have a salmon-protection strategy that most of the region agrees on. That has never happened before.
Most of the affected Native American tribes support it. Three of the four Northwest states support it. Diverse economic interests support it. Tribal fish biologists support it. There are still some critics -- on environmental issues, unanimity is rare. But among the many intractable water and natural resource disputes that dominate the West, rarely has there been such a comprehensive solution with such broad backing.
The strategy, called a biological opinion, or BiOp for short, does not call for removing dams. But neither does it ignore the impact dams have on fish. Far from it: Of 73 specific actions that the opinion outlines to protect salmon, fully 30 involve modifying the major federal Columbia and Snake river dams and operating them to better promote fish survival.
The reason it doesn't deal solely with the dams is that they're far from the only problem that fish face. That's why the biological opinion -- along with federal-state-tribal agreements called the Columbia River Fish Accords -- goes far beyond the dams to address some of the other critical but less obvious threats that have dogged fish for decades.
It dedicates funds to repair and protect hundreds of miles of spawning streams hammered by years of logging and grazing. The BiOp also mandates reform of hatcheries that otherwise dilute the genes of wild fish populations and introduce disease. It takes aim at the unnatural predators that a recent study concluded do as much damage to salmon populations as dams. In many cases, science shows that these steps can benefit fish more than further fixes at each dam, particularly at those dams where upwards of 95 percent of fish now pass safely.
Its comprehensive scope has earned this approach broad support and demonstrates why it makes sense for both the fish and for the region. The broad backing it receives is -- believe it or not -- one positive outcome of the litigation that many of us feared would never end. U.S. District Judge James Redden, unsatisfied with earlier federal fish strategies, decided that only true regional collaboration could yield a true regional solution. Tribes, states and federal agencies that had too often been foes finally found that solution. It is not dictated by the feds; it's designed by the region, and it offers a path out of the courtroom and onto the rivers and streams that the fish, and all of us, depend on.
Back in 1941, Woody Guthrie sang about how the dams from Grand Coulee on helped shape the Northwest. (Full disclosure: The Bonneville Power Administration paid Woody to write those songs.) Today, those dams hold new values that are just as important as the original ones. The same hydropower that provided the energy to build the ships and planes that won World War II today gives the Northwest electricity with the lowest carbon emissions in the nation. Because of hydropower, every watt of electricity in the Northwest comes with scarcely half the greenhouse gas emissions as the rest of the West.
The same hydroelectric dams, built and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation, created a 900-mile inland waterway and gave the Northwest its manufacturing industry. They have today helped the BPA add more wind energy to the Northwest power grid than any other system of its size. Wind needs a backup power source to quickly fill gaps when it doesn't blow. Nuclear and coal plants react too slowly. Hydropower, though, is ideal.
Any choice we make has environmental consequences; any source of energy that keeps our lights on has impacts. If it's not dams, it's coal, natural gas or nuclear.
This is not to say that we shouldn't strive to reduce the impact of dams on salmon and steelhead – fish that are every bit as vital to the region's economy. And we are working to do so. About one-third of the revenue from BPA's electric rates goes toward fish and wildlife. The support of so many tribes who have long depended on salmon, and who were too often overlooked by past federal policies, underscores the strength and credibility of today's solution. Communities, tribes and biologists are now working side-by-side from the headwaters to the estuary. A plan like this that moves forward with broad regional support has got to be better than spending more time in the courtroom.
Greg Delwiche is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is vice president of Environment, Fish and Wildlife at the Bonneville Power Administration in Portland, Oregon.