By Jeremy Jacobs
March 3, 2020
A long-awaited, court-ordered federal plan to recover the Pacific Northwest's salmon has satisfied few and has shifted attention to Congress and statehouses to come up with a solution before time runs out for the region's iconic species.
Federal managers of the Columbia River's complex hydropower system last week released a draft environmental analysis of how the dams affect salmon and steelhead, and what they should do to mitigate those impacts.
For the first time, they were required to consider breaching four dams on the Lower Snake River in eastern Washington that conservationists say are the straw that breaks the camel's back for several runs of salmon and steelhead.
Unsurprisingly, advocates who sued to force the assessment say, the agencies did not back the breaching option. Instead, they recommended relatively minor tweaks to a program that many say isn't working for several runs of fish (Greenwire, Feb. 28).
"With this draft EIS, the agencies have confirmed that they are not going to take the kind of broad view that would let us actually make the investments and take the actions to solve this problem," said Todd True of Earthjustice, who represented environmental groups in the lawsuit that led to the new review.
"That really puts the spotlight on various elected leaders," True said.
The salmon and steelhead runs of the Columbia River were once among the largest in the world, with 10 million to 16 million fish returning every year to spawn. About half of those swam upstream hundreds of miles to the Columbia's main tributary, the Snake River, and into Idaho.
Those numbers plunged quickly in the 20th century, especially for the Snake River runs, thanks to harvest, predators, dam building and a warming ocean due to climate change.
More than a dozen runs are now listed under the Endangered Species Act. Most experts agree that the country's most expensive recovery program — it's cost nearly $17 billion — isn't working for some of those runs.
A federal court has struck down aspects of the program on five occasions, most recently in May 2016. One judge ruled that it "literally cries out for a major overhaul."
That led to the draft environmental impact statement last week from the Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bonneville Power Administration, or BPA, which sells the power from the dams.
It comes as BPA faces its own challenges. BPA funds the endangered species program, but wind, solar and natural gas have challenged its hydropower as the cheapest source of energy in the region. Some of its customers have said they will at least explore other options when contracts expire in 2028 (Greenwire, Nov. 27, 2019).
Many say the region needs a more far-reaching solution.
"The EIS process," Sean O'Leary of the nonprofit NW Energy Coalition said, "is too limited in scope to adequately address all the relevant issues, which is why a more comprehensive process is needed to solve the challenge of fish restoration while also addressing the full range of regional, community, and tribal needs."
O'Leary's group was one of 17 parties — including tribes, environmental groups and power providers in the region — that sent a letter to the governors of Idaho, Oregon and Washington state late last month.
It called for a collaborative effort and a commitment to "abundant and harvestable fish" while ensuring reliability of the electric grid (Greenwire, Feb. 25).
Some experts and advocates say the only way to achieve "abundant and harvestable" fish runs is to remove the four Lower Snake River dams: Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite.
O'Leary's group did an extensive analysis in 2018 that found solar, wind, demand response and efficiency measures could replace the power from the four dams at relatively low cost.
He said their preliminary analysis of the draft environmental impact statement found "significant shortcomings," including the absence of any discussion of wind power and demand resources.
"We think those shortcomings result in an overstatement of the amount and the cost of new electricity resources that would be required to replace power and services from the dams." O'Leary said.
Linwood Laughy, an Idaho-based activist, said the preferred alternative of the environmental assessment — whose measures include tweaks to some programs and increased spill over the dams to help the fish migrate — "just leads us back to court and drags this all out for another five years."
And it shows that any effort to save the fish must come from elsewhere.
"It's going to have to take some alignment of Pacific Northwest power brokers," Laughy said.
'These fish may not make it’
Notably, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) appeared to endorse breaching the four dams last month in a letter to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) (Greenwire, Feb. 18).
Inslee and Idaho Gov. Brad Little (R) have both spoken on the issue and convened task forces to study salmon, as well as how the depleted runs are affecting a pod of orcas in Puget Sound that relies on salmon for food.
But both have also sidestepped the politically charged question of whether to breach the four Lower Snake River dams.
That's spurred an increased focus on Rep. Mike Simpson. The Idaho Republican delivered an impassioned speech last April that connected BPA's financial challenges to the fish problems and pledged to ask hard "what if" questions about the entire system as it exists now.
He also spoke about salmon in nearly religious terms. Describing seeing adult salmon in Idaho that had swum 900 miles from the ocean and up 7,000 feet of elevation gain to spawn and die, Simpson said: "It was the end of a cycle. And the beginning of a new one. These are the most incredible creatures, I think, that God's created" (Greenwire, Sept. 3, 2019).
However, some important players in the region have yet to sign on to a new, separate negotiation process.
The Pacific Northwest Waterways Association represents parties that rely on the Columbia and Snake rivers for barging and transportation, which is made possible by the four 100-foot-tall, run-of-the-river dams on the Lower Snake River. That includes shipping companies, ports and, importantly, the region's farmers.
Executive Director Kristin Meira said the draft environmental impact statement struck the right tone.
"From where we sit," she said, "it appears to be a balanced approach when it comes to satisfying all the different authorized purposes of the dams in the basin, with continued improvements for fish."
She said long-term concerns about salmon recovery are best addressed through the Columbia Basin Partnership Task Force, an initiative NOAA established three years ago.
Others have been skeptical of that process, including how quickly it can generate changes to benefit the fish.
Laughy, the Idaho-based activist, said the clock is ticking.
"We don't have a lot more time for these fish, considering the predictions about global warming," he said. "These fish may not make it even if we take the dams out."
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