Time for solutions on the lower Snake River

Any day now, Federal District Judge James A. Redden of Portland, OR is expected to issue his ruling on the 2010 Biological Opinion (BiOp) for the Columbia and Snake rivers.  The BiOp, also known as the federal salmon plan, governs operations of the federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers and includes actions intended to address the harm the dams inflict on threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead.  This is the third salmon plan on which Judge Redden has been asked to rule – he struck down the 2000 and 2004 plans.

Those seeking to restore salmon runs are not merely trying to avoid extinction.  Our goal is to recover wild salmon populations to commercially harvestable levels – not pre-Columbian levels but a population that can support the needs of tribal treaty obligations, coastal fishing fleets, and recreational economies.  From our point of view, the science is clear that the most effective way to get there, with the least cost, is to remove the lower four dams on the Snake River.  

The debate around these dams is complicated by volumes of technical facts, significant financial implications, and loud and powerful voices on both sides. Lost in the complexity is what this is really all about.  Everyone involved is fighting to preserve or restore a way of life.  People want to fish, farm, recreate, transport goods, and power their homes and businesses. 

We have been painted as myopically focused only on the destruction of the dams.  Perhaps at times our rhetoric has created that misimpression, but that is clearly not our interest.  What motive would we have simply for the destruction of infrastructure?

That is like suggesting that the motivation of those opposed to dam removal is simply preservation of the dams.  It isn’t the dams that people want but the services they provide.  If we were to roll up our sleeves and focus on trying to meet all of our collective interests, remaining open to all means of getting there, I think we could find a solution that works for everyone.  The Obama administration and Pacific Northwest elected leaders have an opportunity to modernize dam, salmon, and water management in a way that works for the whole region, including farmers, fishermen, and energy producers and consumers. 

Throughout this process, we’ve argued that fish recovery can be best achieved by removing dams, but that before removing dams, the services they provide must be replaced with cost effective alternatives.  Power from the dams can be replaced through a combination of energy efficiency, new renewables like wind, and perhaps changes in the operation of the region’s other dams.  Grain currently transported  on lower Snake River barges can be moved over upgraded railroads, highways, and Columbia River barges.

Irrigation is only provided from the lowermost of four lower Snake River reservoirs, and that water could also be pumped from a free-flowing river.  In addition, dam removal would bring with it substantial recreational benefits, reduce the risk of flooding in Lewiston, Idaho, and reduce or even eliminate pressure on Idaho farmers to forgo irrigation for the benefit of downstream salmon.  Dam removal would also likely be cheaper in the long run for taxpayers and electricity ratepayers, as it would reduce mitigation costs for the rest of the Columbia River dams.   

If someone can put forward a credible alternative plan for achieving recovery of harvestable salmon and steelhead runs that protects these other values, we are ready to evaluate and even embrace it.  None has come to light so far, which is why we find ourselves forever in court. As other river and water management settlements around the West have demonstrated, it takes hard work to chart out a win-win solution, but such outcomes can be and have been achieved.

In the Columbia-Snake basin, a win-win solution will be one that restores abundant, harvestable wild salmon, fosters investment in new renewable energy, ensures sufficient water supplies and transportation infrastructure for farms and communities, and reduces risk of flood damage.

Whether or not American Rivers and our allies are successful in our legal challenge, in the wake of Judge Redden’s decision we will need strong leadership from the White House, Northwest governors, and the Northwest congressional delegation.  These leaders should encourage and even demand that Columbia Basin stakeholders get together to forge a comprehensive plan to restore imperiled salmon and protect and enhance the region’s economy and quality of life.