Five illegal plans. Twenty years of foot-dragging and failure. That’s the track record to date of the federal agencies tasked with restoring wild salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers.
U.S. District Court Judge Michael H. Simon in Portland recently rejected the latest plan, ordering NOAA Fisheries, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bonneville Power Administration and other agencies to develop a new plan to restore endangered wild salmon and steelhead, beginning with an assessment of all recovery options and a public comment process.
In ruling in favor of sport and commercial fishing groups, conservation organizations, clean energy advocates, the state of Oregon and the Nez Perce Tribe, Judge Simon firmly rejected the federal agencies’ strategy to avoid dam management changes on the Columbia-Snake system that wild salmon need to survive.
The judge rejected the government’s attempt to weaken the requirements of the Endangered Species Act and its reliance on speculative and uncertain habitat projects rather than changes to the dams and their operation.
Also, the agencies were called out on their failure to address the growing impacts of climate change on wild salmon. Ninety-nine percent of Idaho’s sockeye died last year due to hot water behind the dams brought on by drought and record-breaking hot weather. Overall, hundreds of thousands of adult and juvenile salmon perished while migrating last year.
Judge Simon ordered the agencies to address these failures and deliver a new plan by March 1, 2018. Most significant and hopeful for our salmon, he made clear that the agencies must consider Lower Snake River dam removal
Many river advocates have fought hard for the Snake River over the decades. Steelhead fishermen led the fight to stop the controversial Lower Snake dams from being built in the first place, including a last stand over Lower Granite Dam in the 1970s. When the Army Corps considered dam removal in the late 1990s, we came together again to advocate for a free-flowing Snake River. More than 800 people turned out to hearings in Spokane and more than 600 urged the agencies to remove the dams and restore the river. We came close.
Will it be different this time? Can we fix an indisputably broken status quo? Yes we can.
The landscape has changed significantly in the last 20 years. Renewable energy has grown by leaps in the past decade. A NW Energy Coalition study from last year shows how replacing the energy of these four dams with largely renewable power would cost taxpayers around $1 a month. Other studies show even lower costs.
Barging – the primary purpose of these dams – has declined dramatically. While barging remains robust on the Lower Columbia River between Pasco and Portland, container shipping on the Lower Snake River has disappeared and grain shipments have declined too as more shippers switch to rail and/or send goods to Puget Sound rather than Portland.
And the Lower Snake dams are aging. The costs of maintenance and repairs are rising as federal budgets are shrinking and nationally the Army Corps increasingly looks to mothball projects whose benefits not longer justify their expense. When one considers the declining benefits to local communities, rising costs to taxpayers, and the enormous cost to the health of our fisheries and rivers, these four dams no longer make sense.
Perhaps most hopeful: The Northwest has now undertaken many more dam removals – Elwha, Condit, Marmot, to name a few – and celebrated the return of rivers and salmon. And we have learned how people, communities and ecosystems benefit from removing dams and restoring rivers. None of the dire predictions by opponents has come true.
These success stories can show us the way forward on the Lower Snake. We can trade four aging dams for a modernized transportation system to better benefit farmers, truly clean energy for our citizens and utilities, and hundreds of millions in river and other outdoor recreation dollars to benefit towns throughout the region.
A judge has provided the path forward. Anglers, river users, community leaders and citizens must push our elected leaders and the federal government to finally free the Snake River.
Sam Mace is Inland Northwest director for Save Our Wild Salmon, a coalition of sport and commercial fishing interests, conservation groups and clean energy advocates working to restore wild salmon and steelhead to the Columbia and Snake rivers.
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