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Save Our Wild Salmon

June 5, 2009
by Marty Trillhaase, editorial writer

Anyone who felt U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo abandoned this region last week should consider what the Idaho Republican said about dams and fish.

Then think about why Crapo said it.
Here's what Crapo said: It's time to bring people who have been fighting for the Lower Snake River dams or the region's threatened salmon and steelhead runs to the same table.

"In collaboration, all options have to be all the table, all interest groups must be represented fairly and everyone must come to the table with a willingness to participate. Does that mean dam breaching has to be on the table? - Yes," Crapo said. "But understand that also means not dam breaching must be on the table. All options must be openly and fairly discussed."

Crapo offered no endorsement of the dam breaching fish advocates desire. Neither was he flat-out refusing to discuss it. But just acknowledging the possibility was a fresh step outside the shadow of former Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig, who defended the dams at all costs.

That's the point of the collaborative efforts, which Crapo utilized to craft his successful Owyhee Wilderness package. Nobody's excluded. No ideas are too outlandish to be discussed.

Collaboration has produced agreements to manage Idaho's water, the Henry's Fork of the Snake River, the state's roadless national forests and a Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness package that is pending in Congress.

Now here's why he said it: Political and judicial currents are shifting. U.S. District Judge James Redden of Portland has all but said the old Bush administration's approach to salmon recovery won't meet the Endangered Species Act's requirements.

Even a federal judge can't compel federal officials to dismantle the infrastructure of dams. But Redden may dictate how that infrastructure operates. In his May 18 letter to an Obama administration that is likely to respect his views, Redden outlined his options:

Draining more of the upper Snake River for flow augmentation. The region already delivers 427,000 acre-feet. He also could order more Dworshak Reservoir water to cool the lower Snake to help migrating fish. Southern Idaho irrigators and northern Idaho recreationists will suffer the consequences.
Spilling more water over the dams during the spring and summer. It means less hydro-electric production.
Drawing down reservoirs, such as at John Day, which would undermine shipping.
Preparing contingency plans for breaching the dams.

As much as fish advocates might cheer such efforts, it translates into winning a series of skirmishes. Decades of court challenge and political sniping, which so far have cost ratepayers $1 billion for unsuccessful recovery plans, would continue.
By taking Crapo up on the offer to collaborate, they might secure a permanent solution.

Likewise, north central Idaho and eastern Washington agricultural, shipping and dam proponents face the same pressures. They can challenge, even block solutions without imposing a final plan. But this new environment deprives the region of any certainty.

Only by working together can each side get what it wants - or at least avoid what it truly dreads.

Can anyone predict where this collaborative process will lead or what kind of compromise it would produce? No. Not even Crapo - who is seeking a third term next year - can say whether this will enhance or injure his political prospects.

But Crapo's idea provides people and interests most directly challenged by this issue a vote in deciding how it's resolved.
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