September 15, 2009

Obama team reveals plan to save the Columbia Basin’s salmon

Print More

One of the Northwest’s most hotly contested salmon rescue plans was unveiled today by the Obama administration, and to the dismay of many environmentalists — it doesn’t stray far from Bush’s 2008 proposal, reports Matthew Preusch of the Oregonian.

Obama and his team had until today to make changes to a Bush-era formula for protecting endangered runs of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin, tackling a long-running dispute on how to balance energy needs with salmon conservation. The new plan, called a biological opinion and required by the Endangered Species Act, in many ways, defends the old one, finding it to be “fundamentally sound.” Said Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, who dealt with salmon issues and was criticized by environmentalists when he was Washington governor for trying to appease agricultural interests:

This biological opinion, backed by sound science and tremendous state and tribal support, will help preserve the vibrancy and vitality of the Columbia and Snake River basins for generations to come.

The Columbia River has blessed the region’s residents with cheap hydroelectric power and broad navigation routes, but the area’s federally protected salmon have seen far better days. Environmentalists say that four dams on the Snake River in particular are derailing salmon recovery efforts, which have not improved since the mid 1980s, and U.S. District Court Judge James Redden, who has thrown out previous  Bush administration plans, has agreed — more or less. In 2005, he ordered the feds to temporarily increase the amount of water spilling from the dams. That helps salmon swimming downstream, but reduces the amount of water — and energy — flowing through the power-producing turbines.

While Obama’s updated plan does not commission removal of the dams, it does raise the slight possibility, calling for further studies by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It also sets “trigger” population numbers, for which stronger recovery measures can be enforced.

While Judge Redden has always been adamant that the government assemble a plan that meet all of his standards, Obama’s latest plan may not be as easily tossed out, wrote Daniel Jack Chasan of Crosscut in April. Redden said he was tired of the nearly decade-long cycle of inadequate proposals and wants to get recovery plans out of the courtroom and into the field. Said Redden:

I have no desire to remand this biological opinion for yet another round of consultation. The revolving door of consultation and litigation does little to help endangered salmon and steelhead.

InvestigateWest first covered this topic in early August, when Oregon State and environmentalists waged a political war against Obama’s handling of the lingering Bush-era salmon rescue strategy, saying it excluded key perspectives. Just last week seven fishing groups revealed that they too felt ostracized from the plan — and sent a letter to the aforementioned Locke asking to be involved in the plans, reported Rob Manning of the Oregon Public Radio.

— Natasha Walker

Comments are closed.