This summer's plan for imperiled salmon

A judge orders spillover in five dams in the Northwest. But will the current approach reverse the steep decline?

Like a salmon fighting its way upstream and faced with a massive concrete dam, the Bush administration has come smack up against the Endangered Species Act in its effort to save fish headed for extinction.

A federal judge has ruled that the administration's plan to reverse the historically steep decline in Columbia River salmon violates what is arguably the most comprehensive US environmental law. And for starters, US District Judge James Redden ordered that more water be spilled over five major hydropower dams on the Snake and Columbia Rivers this summer.

That will benefit the fish. But it also will raise the price of electricity in the region, and it could adversely impact farmers who rely on irrigation - especially during the current drought.

This ruling is good news for environmentalists, native American tribes, fishing communities, and biologists. But power generators, businesses, and regional politicians warn that it could make things worse at an enormous cost to the region, beginning with an extra $67 million in electric bills.

Judge Redden's decision no doubt will be appealed. But some critics of his ruling threaten to get around the courts by asking President Bush to invoke the rarely used "God Squad" - a panel of seven cabinet secretaries that has the power to put economic considerations ahead of species protection in deciding such issues.

Lurking in the shadows of the political debate: whether or not to breach any of the major dams in the Columbia Basin that have been the main reason that annual salmon runs have plummeted to a small fraction of their historic numbers.

In some ways, the fight over salmon in the Pacific Northwest makes the notorious spotted-owl story seem easy by comparison.

The geography

The Columbia Basin (the Columbia and Snake Rivers, plus hundreds of tributaries) covers portions of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and British Columbia, totaling an area the size of Western Europe. Born in shallow, cool gravel beds, salmon head out to sea as youngsters (called smolts), then return as adults several years later to parent their own offspring before expiring.

Dams are the main problem, scientists say. They make it difficult for mature salmon to get to their spawning grounds, and their slice-and-dice turbines are deadly to juveniles headed downstream. But logging, mining, agriculture, and urban development over the past half century also have degraded the thousands of streams where salmon reproduce.

The politics of the issue are as complicated as the science. Managing this intricate web of watersheds involves dozens of government agencies at all levels, Indian tribes (which have their own treaty rights regarding such natural resources), watchdogging environmentalists, independent scientific organizations, and businesses ranging from manufacturing to farming to commercial and residential development.

The Bush administration has pledged some $6 billion over the next decade on salmon recovery - way more than the approximately $1 billion spent so far. This would include things like slides to allow juvenile fish to bypass the giant hydropower turbines as they head downstream to the Pacific Ocean and increased efforts to control predator fish and birds.

But the administration also has reduced the officially designated "critical habitat" - the thousands of square miles of streams that feed the Snake and Columbia Rivers - by some 80 percent. And it absolutely rules out removal or breaching of any of the eight main dams on the two rivers.

Assessment of the plans

Redden did not address dam removal in his ruling. But he did write that "as currently operated, I find that the dams strongly contribute to the endangerment of the [salmon] species and irreparable injury will result if changes are not made."

Fish biologists, too, say that the current plan to save salmon is unlikely to reverse the downward trend that's existed since the dams turned much of the once free-flowing Columbia and Snake Rivers into a chain of reservoirs.

The American Fisheries Society, an organization of professional fish biologists that dates back to 1870, recently reported that the biological opinion on which the administration plan is based "fails to reach objective, science-based conclusions on the impacts to listed populations and their survival as a species."

The plan, the scientists wrote, is based on "new technologies that have largely been untested and used faulty analysis to reach many of its conclusions." The scientists concluded that mitigating measures "must be far more aggressive and focused to ensure survival and commence recovery of listed stocks in the Columbia watershed."

Meanwhile, some fish advocates say that reducing the adverse impact of the dams in fact could greatly enhance the region's economy. Those making this case tend to be commercial and sport-fishing companies and the makers of recreational equipment, so their self-interest is obvious. But one recent study showed that a restored fishery could boost local economies in Idaho alone by $544 million a year.

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