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Restoring the Lower Snake River

newspaperTuesday, Sept. 17, 2013

The federal agencies responsible for drafting a fifth plan to recover the Snake River's imperiled salmon and steelhead runs seem destined to begin work on a sixth.

How else can you explain a fish recovery plan - technically known as a biological opinion - that sticks with the same strategies: Raise more hatchery fish, restrain harvests, improve habitat and install technological fixes on the dams dotting the Snake and Columbia river system? For two decades now, federal judges have been striking down that approach as inadequate. U.S. District Judge James Redden of Portland, Ore., issued the last ruling two years ago.

Meanwhile, the number of wild spring-summer chinook returning to the Snake River continues to slip - down to an estimated 15,000 this year - after reaching a high of 26,267 in 2010.

Recovery costs, however, have hit the $13 billion mark and counting.

Fish advocates have virtually no chance of achieving their dream - breaching the four dams on the lower Snake River and restoring a natural current - through any court order. For that, you'd need an act of Congress.

So the cycle of judicial rejection begetting more biological opinions - what one fish advocate dubbed "Groundhog Day" after the movie about Bill Murray reliving the same day - begins anew.

Except when you consider the notion that both fish advocates and dam operators stand so agonizingly near to a compromise.

Seven years ago, Redden ordered the feds to send more water over the spillways - rather than generating electricity - to enable more smolts to travel to the ocean free of the stress of being barged or flushed through turbines.

Do that and the young fish are less prone to disease and less susceptible to predators.

Results have been promising enough that for two years now, scientists have suggested expanded spill might push the fish runs into healthier territory.

Right now, about one of every 100 salmon smolts and about 1 1/2 of every 100 steelhead smolts return as adults, a number too small to preserve the endangered fish runs.

But, said the March 7-8 Comparative Survival Study, expanding spill to a point just short of where nitrogen levels in the water become unhealthy for fish could push salmon smolt-to-adult survival ratios up to 3.5 percent and steelhead smolt-to-adult ratios to 4 percent.

That's within the range of sustainability.

Coupled with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's foray into collaborative talks with 200 groups representing all sides of the dams-vs.-fish debate, that theory becomes a tantalizing opportunity to reach a third way.

This was a chance the feds did not seize. In fact, their bio-op proposes to scale back spill - shutting it down a month ahead of time - in early August.

Less spill obviously means more money from power generation. But a pathway toward preserving fish means removing the threat of breaching and thereby maintaining Lewiston-Clarkston's shipping channel. And wasn't that the point of building the four dams on the Lower Snake River in the first place?

Like its four predecessors, this fish recovery plan leaves the region under a cloud. The only certainty on the horizon is more litigation in a far-off federal courtroom. - M.T.

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