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Know the West

From river to river


Note: This front-page editor's note is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

From river to river around the West, details vary, but the bigger picture is the same: The federal government brandishes the stick of the Endangered Species Act because it's almost the only tool the government has to restore river ecosystems. Yet in the 26 years that the law has been available, wildlife continues to decline.

Salmon in the Northwest, squawfish on the Colorado River and other native species around the West are all in trouble for similar reasons: Water has been sucked from the river for farming, drinking and making electricity.

There are all kinds of excuses. The federal agencies, primarily the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have to operate within the labyrinth of budgets, licenses and permits for dams and river diversions, intersecting with state and local water-rights systems. The Fish and Wildlife Service doesn't have direct authority; it merely issues "biological opinions' that are enforced only if environmentalists file suit and persuade some judge to enforce them.

It's a regulatory system that sets up environmentalists to look like spoilers.

More and more, instead of swinging full force, the feds look for progress by offering compromises, trying to lure as many people as possible to the negotiating table. Under this modern politics of consensus, coming to the table reluctantly are not only the cities and farmers but also hydropower generators, other developers and any tribes that have a claim. Environmentalists come, too, in spite of fears they'll be outnumbered and maneuvered into issuing a green blanket for compromises that amount to too little, too late.

It's a muddy picture, but on one river - the Platte - a new era might be dawning. Betsy Rieke, who as assistant secretary of Interior for Water and Science was instrumental in getting the Platte process going, says: "You have to figure out how to overcome the negative drag. I call it, practicing optimism beyond reason."