How saving salmon will change urban life in Northwest

Putting fish on endangered species list could raise costs of sewer,water.

For more than a quarter century, the Endangered Species Act has been the most controversial and disruptive environmental law in the United States. In the process of saving bald eagles, grizzly bears, and other species from extinction, it's blocked commercial development, changed the way national forests and rangeland are managed, and altered scientific thinking on the importance of plant and animal habitat.

But for the most part, the law's economic and social impact on people has been relatively limited to ranchers, loggers, and a few residential property owners or commercial developers. Now, Uncle Sam has issued the first major endangered species listing to cover a broad urban area, and its impact could be widespread and profound.

This involves migrating fish runs from the Puget Sound to the Willamette Valley - thousands of square miles and hundreds of thousands of people, including those in the region's two major urban centers, Seattle and Portland, Ore. And, if three other listings take place as expected, the total sweep of impact could be from the Canadian border to central California.

Whereas most listings typically affect rural areas - a relative handful of loggers and millworkers with the northern spotted owl - this one involving salmon and steelhead will exact financial and lifestyle costs on everyone from Seattle's software billionaire Bill Gates on down.

Cost of saving a species

The cost of public services like sewer, water, and electricity will go up. Day-to-day things like washing a car or fertilizing a lawn will have to change. There could be water rationing in summer months. Home building and other development will be restricted. In the process, it could push up the price of housing in what is already the hottest real estate market in the country.

"These listings will impact all of our lives, regardless of whether you eat salmon, ever fish for salmon, or live in a high-rise condo far from a salmon-bearing stream," says Washington Gov. Gary Locke (D).

Aside from the vastness of the potential impact, what makes this listing unique is the fact that virtually all political leaders in the region are agreed that serious - and expensive - steps must be taken to save salmon, the region's defining icon, as well as the basis for an important part of its economy. "Extinction is not an option," Governor Locke states flatly.

Sen. Slade Gorton (R) of Washington, not the favorite politician of environmental activists, agrees. "The prospect of the Puget Sound region without a vibrant salmon resource is as unthinkable as the Pacific Northwest without the Cascades."

And when it's all said and done, says Senator Gorton, "the tab for Puget Sound salmon recovery will be substantial." Gorton is seeking $310 million in federal funds for watershed recovery efforts in the Columbia and Puget Sound areas. Locke proposes to spend $200 million on salmon recovery for just the first two years of what is likely to be a multidecade effort.

The history of trying to save declining wild salmon runs in the Columbia River Basin features more failures than successes. Over the past 15 years, some $3 billion has been spent on things like adjusting river flows through the eight major dams along the river system and barging juvenile salmon downstream past hydropower turbines. Despite the effort, annual salmon runs, which once totaled as many as 16 million fish have dropped to less than 1 million.

Earlier this week, 200 scientists from around the region urged President Clinton to return the lower Snake River (the Columbia's main tributary) to a free-flowing condition.

"Either we change course now and restore the lower Snake to a semblance of a river, or we will likely lose forever a unique and precious genetic resource that cannot be replaced," warns Robert Behnke, a Colorado State University fisheries professor.

This would mean breaching the four major dams on the Snake, a move strongly opposed by shippers and farmers. The Clinton administration is to decide by December on a long-term recovery plan for Snake River salmon, some of whose species already have gone extinct.

What makes salmon recovery so complicated is that subspecies and "evolutionary significant units" - which return to specific streams to spawn - are treated separately under the law. The latest listings involve separate wild salmon and steelhead runs on rivers with such regionally distinctive names as the Nooksack, the Nisqually, and the Sammamish.

Much of the public also tends to confuse wild salmon with hatchery fish, which many biologists now say can be harmful to native species. Scientists liken wild salmon to the canary in the coal mine - an important indicator of the region's overall environmental health.

Holistic approach

It is generally agreed that saving wild salmon will involve a holistic approach including thousands of decisions and changes ranging from street-corner storm sewer placement to the temperature of wastewater from computer-chip makers to how the mammoth Bonneville Power Administration markets its hydropower.

"We have forced the salmon to adjust to us," says William Ruckelshaus, Environmental Protection Agency administrator in the Nixon and Reagan administrations who now heads a coalition of Puget Sound business and environmental leaders. "With this listing and from this day on, that is going to force us to adjust to the salmon."

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