Uncle Sam is getting hammered in federal courts for failing to protect endangered salmon, the totemic icon of the Pacific Northwest.
The US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Tuesday rejected the Bush administration's water diversion plan for the Klamath River in California and Oregon because it does not protect the river's coho salmon, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Just a few days earlier, a federal judge in Portland, Ore., said he has had it with failed attempts to recover wild salmon (not to be confused with the hatchery fish) headed toward extinction in the vast Columbia River Basin, an area the size of central Europe.
After what have been years of trying and failing, and more than $1 billion spent on recovery efforts, US District Judge James Redden gave federal agencies one year - not the two years they had asked for - to come up with a plan that actually works. And he raised the specter of tearing out mammoth hydroelectric dams in the Columbia-Snake River system - which could dramatically alter key parts of the region's economy, particularly the agriculture and shipping industries - if they don't succeed.
"The government's inaction appears to some parties to be a strategy intended to avoid making hard choices and offending those who favor the status quo," Judge Redden wrote. "We are all aware of the demands of other users of the resources of the Columbia River and Snake River, but we need to be far more aware of the needs of the endangered and threatened species."
If the hydropower dams were to be breached, much less electricity would be produced, which may raise the price of power and make it more expensive for wide segments of the economy in the West.
It's an extremely complicated environmental, economic, and legal issue - far more so than the case of the infamous northern spotted owl, whose court-ordered protections hastened the demise of many small timber towns around the Northwest through the 1990s.
Salmon need the right amount of water and the proper temperature to spawn far upstream, and then they head out to the Pacific Ocean for several years before returning to the place of their birth to repeat the cycle. Dams, diversions for irrigation, logging, mining, and urban development all have made the river trips to and from the ocean increasingly difficult.
Before eight major dams were built on the Columbia River and the Snake River (the Columbia's main tributary), some 16 million salmon a year filled annual fish runs. Today, that number is down to about 1 million fish, and 12 species of salmon now are listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The same is true for the Klamath River. It once saw one of the largest salmon runs. But the number of fish there has declined to the point where extinction is a possibility, largely because of dams and water diversions for agriculture.
In both places, government agencies, Indian tribes, environmental groups, university scientists, and economic interests have been battling it out for more than a decade.
Meanwhile, other important variables may be at work over the long term that could have significant impact on salmon runs. According to a recent report by University of Washington researchers in Seattle, climate change has been occurring in the Puget Sound region at a relatively rapid rate. It could make it more difficult for salmon because the temperature of river water is critical to their survival.
The essence of the federal appeals court ruling this week - the latest in a series of legal decisions on Pacific salmon that go back more than 30 years - is that the US Bureau of Reclamation's 10-year plan for restoring the Klamath salmon run is "arbitrary and capricious," failing to provide enough water for the fish until the last two years. By that time, the court declared, it well may be that "all the water in the world ... will not protect the coho [salmon], for there will be none to protect."
The problem, says Steve Pedry of the Oregon Natural Resources Council, is "too much water has been promised to too many different interests."
Farmers and ranchers dependent on irrigation in the Klamath basin have 45 days to seek another court hearing to make their case, and federal agencies are likely to appeal as well.
"We think the court really got it wrong," says Robin Rivett, a lawyer with the Pacific Legal Foundation who represents irrigators along the Oregon-California border.
The Bush administration has pledged some $6 billion over the next decade on salmon recovery in the Columbia Basin. But it also wants to include hatchery fish with wild salmon for purposes of counting fish under the Endangered Species Act, which biologists argue against because it would lead to further salmon declines.
It has reduced the amount of officially designated "critical habitat" - the thousands of square miles of streams that flow into the Snake and Columbia Rivers - for salmon up and down the West Coast. The president has said he'd never approve breaching or removing any of the eight main hydropower dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers.
Will these critical court cases and impatient judges finally do the trick in turning around the precipitous decline of wild salmon? It's likely to take many more years to find out.