Salmon plan lets dams remain
WASHINGTON – Settlements reached Monday with four Northwest Indian tribes would commit federal agencies to spend $900 million over the next decade on improving conditions for endangered salmon but leave intact hydroelectric dams in the Columbia River Basin that environmentalists say kill fish.
The settlements would end years of legal battles between the Bush administration, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation and three other tribes, but would not affect a fifth tribe that is party to a lawsuit, nor environmental groups that vowed to press on in their efforts to breach four dams on the Lower Snake River.
Federal officials called the agreement a landmark in the long-running dispute over balancing tribal and commercial fishing rights, protection for threatened salmon and power demands from the region’s network of hydroelectric dams.
Michael Marchand, chairman of the Colville tribe’s business council, concurred.
“Our people come from the upper waters of the Columbia River,” Marchand said Monday during a conference call. “My part of the river is where the salmon are born. …We are salmon people, and the dams stopped that way of life.”
Grand Coulee and Chief Joseph dams brought cheap electricity to the region but inundated the fishing camps where Marchand grew up. The agreement commits millions of dollars to restoration work that will benefit salmon and other fisheries, he said.
But environmentalists said the deal fell far short of what is needed to recover threatened salmon, an icon of the Northwest protected by the Endangered Species Act that costs the government billions of dollars to protect.
“This deal defies the decades of salmon science that say salmon recovery in the Columbia and Snake River Basin is not possible with habitat and hatchery programs alone,” said Bill Shake, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official who advises a Northwest sportfishing group.
Any scientifically sound plan must include increased spill at the two dozen dams and irrigation projects along the Columbia and Snake rivers as well as removal of four outdated dams on the lower Snake River in Eastern Washington, Shake said.
Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski also criticized the agreement, calling it premature. He said tribes were taking a short-term view.
“It’s a sad day for me,” Kulongoski said.
Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire called the deal a “positive development” and said federal and tribal leaders should be commended for their efforts.
“We can best protect and enhance our salmon by working together collaboratively throughout the region focusing on real, on-the-ground solutions that make a difference,” she said.
Steve Wright, administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration, a regional power agency that led the settlement talks, said the new agreements should benefit salmon and Northwest ratepayers alike, although he acknowledged the deal was likely to raise utility rates by an unspecified amount.
“The Columbia River has provided innumerable benefits to all of us here in the Northwest, and these agreements are about giving back to the river and helping to meet our tribal treaty and trust responsibilities by providing even more support for the fish species of our region,” Wright said.
“We have spent decades arguing with each other. Today these parties are saying let’s lay down the swords, let’s spend more time working collaboratively to … help fish and less time litigating,” Wright added.
The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission also agreed to the settlement, although one of its member tribes, the Idaho-based Nez Perce Tribe, declined to sign the agreement. The tribe said in a statement that it still wants to see the four lower Snake River dams taken down.
It was unclear Monday how the settlement would affect a legal dispute now being heard in federal court in Oregon. U.S. District Judge James Redden has set a May 5 deadline for the government’s latest scientific plan for balancing operations of Columbia Basin dams with threatened or endangered fish runs. Redden has rejected two previous plans, called biological opinions, and has threatened unspecified consequences if he rejects the latest effort.