The Obama administration's salmon plan for the Columbia and Snake rivers, submitted to U.S. District Judge James Redden in mid-September, was a great disappointment. It largely ratified the Bush administration's plan and failed to come up with effective action to restore the runs of endangered salmon, fish that are central to the history, culture and economy of the Northwest. Instead, the plan promised more dam business as usual. As the rock group The Who once famously sang: "Meet the new boss; same as the old boss."
However disappointing to salmon advocates, this commitment to the status quo was hardly surprising. In fact, endorsement of the Bush plan was foreshadowed when the leadership of the federal Bonneville Power Administration, which basically dictates dam operations to promote hydropower, was left intact by Obama. Over the last 30 years, BPA has successfully resisted any substantial changes in dam operations, although -- as the agency is quick to declare -- it spends considerable sums each year on salmon. The total bill is now somewhere in excess of $8 billion, depending on who is counting.
All that money has been unable to reverse the decline of the wild salmon because hydropower operations remain the root cause of the problem. This continues despite the 1980 Northwest Power Act's promise that fish and wildlife would be "co-equal" with hydropower –– and despite a decade and a half of biological opinions under the Endangered Species Act aimed at recovering listed salmon runs.
And now the Obama administration promises more of the same. There will be lots of studies, habitat work in the estuary and promised improvements in hatcheries. All this amounts to is the same song, second verse.
True, some of the studies will monitor climate change, which the Bush administration pretended wasn't happening. And there will be contingency planning if the fish runs "decline significantly," triggering a multi-year look at removing the four lower Snake River dams. (In fact, a decade ago studies indicated that dam removal was economically feasible and biologically preferred.) Under the Obama plan, it looks like three decades of ineffective action will turn into four.
Differences between the two plans are mere window dressing. No wonder the BPA administrator, along with the heads of several other federal agencies, including Gary Locke, Obama's secretary of Commerce, quickly inundated Northwestern op-ed pages, urging the public to support the new plan. It will "prevent further declines" of the salmon runs, they claimed, and they called for an end to litigation – understandably, since those lawsuits regularly prove their failure to meet the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.
This public relations campaign ignores the fact that the law requires more than preventing further declines of listed salmon. It requires recovery of the salmon runs. And nothing the federal government has proposed promises to recover Columbia Basin salmon.
In truth, ending the litigation would be the worst thing for salmon. Judge Redden ordered one of the few operational changes in recent years that benefited salmon -- spilling water to facilitate fish passage through the dams. He did so over the objections of all the federal agencies involved, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the supposed protector of salmon. Independent scientists at the Fish Passage Center have confirmed the benefits of the spills that the judge ordered.
For its part, the Bonneville Power Administration has tried to make the litigation over salmon go away by wielding its economic clout -- paying nearly $1 billion over the next decade for the support of all but one of the tribes with fishing rights on the river. And the Obama administration's new plan includes $40 million for the support of the state of Washington, which might be accused of selling out on the cheap. But so far, the Nez Perce Tribe and the state of Oregon have refused to be bought off and remain in the litigation on the side of non-governmental fish advocates and the salmon.
These payoffs should not deceive the public, because they only raise the cost of pursuing an ineffective salmon plan. The $8 billion price tag could double by the time Obama leaves office.
The salmon's only remaining hope is that the court will uphold the Endangered Species Act and require the federal government to take meaningful and effective steps now to save salmon. That would include increasing spills at the dams and giving serious attention to increasing river flows and dam breaching.
That would be change you could believe in.
Michael Blumm is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a law professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon, where he has been involved in Columbia Basin salmon wars for over 30 years.
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