By Josh Mills, August 11, 2017
As I read John Francisco’s Aug. 5 op-ed (“Legislation saves salmon, hydrosystem”), a question came to mind: If the federal agencies had told us 20 years ago that they would spend $16 billion of our money – as ratepayers and taxpayers – on a scheme claiming to protect wild salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers, but fail to recover a single one of the 13 endangered runs, wouldn’t we have demanded a different plan?
That’s why fishing businesses, sport fishing and conservation groups, the state of Oregon and the Nez Perce Tribe all applauded federal Judge Michael Simon’s ruling in 2016, rejecting the government’s latest plan to protect endangered salmon. Simon noted that the Federal Columbia River Power System “cries out for a new approach and new thinking.” He strongly urged the agencies to consider lower Snake River dam removal as an alternative.
Instead of embracing an opportunity to finally resolve the decadeslong morass, our Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers seeks to maintain the uncertainty, the wasting of billions of dollars and the decline of our fish to shore up a status quo that works for fewer people, businesses and communities as the years go by. Her bill, H.R. 3144, would lock us into this failure for at least another five years and lock us out of having input into a new plan that has a chance of success.
H.R. 3144 would effectively overturn the court ruling and rubber-stamp the government’s previous inadequate and illegal plan. It would prohibit the study of dam removal and overrule the court injunction supporting more spilling of water at dams to aid fish migration starting in 2018. Scientists tell us that these two actions are key to recovering wild stocks to healthy numbers.
Perhaps worst of all, this bill perpetuates the uncertainty inflicted on all stakeholders in the Northwest due to the shameless inaction of agencies charged with restoring our region’s iconic fish. By dragging their feet they have ignored the plight not only of businesses and small river towns that depend on fishing, but also the industries that use the dams and towns such as Clarkston, Washington, and Lewiston, Idaho, that flank a reservoir.
As long as our wild salmon and steelhead continue their trajectory toward extinction, dam removal will remain on the table. Lifelong anglers like myself will not give up on a species that defines our rivers and family recreation. We recognize it is difficult for shippers to invest in transportation or riverside towns to develop waterfronts as long as the future of these dams remains in question. Ultimately it’s a situation that does a disservice to everyone.
The federal agencies and certain elected officials have spent the past 20 years trying to protect every dam in the system at the expense of wild salmon and on the backs of Northwest taxpayers. During that time, the benefits of the lower Snake River dams have declined dramatically, with river barging down 70 percent and energy produced by the dams worth much less with the rise in renewables and efficiency. It is time for a new approach, based on up-to-date information and an honest commitment to restoring one of our most precious species and natural resources.
Rep. McMorris Rodgers’ bill thwarts an opportunity to move beyond this impasse. If it becomes law, H.R. 3144 would derail a new planning process that includes new economic analyses, a review of recovery alternatives including dam removal and an opportunity for citizen scrutiny and input. H.R. 3144 would also take off the table an important interim tool – increased spill – that would deliver much-needed help to our struggling wild salmon and steelhead populations.
Instead of losing 99 percent of the Idaho sockeye run because of hot water behind dams like we did in 2015, or witnessing the most dismal return of Snake River steelhead seen in decades, we could have abundant fish returning to the thousands of miles of pristine streams within the largest, most intact salmon habitat left in the Lower 48. We could begin planning for a modern transportation system that works better for shippers, affordable clean energy alternatives and a free-flowing river recreation corridor with 14,400 acres of public land ready to attract tourists and recreational dollars.
The Inland Northwest has a choice. We can acquiesce to another five years of wasted time and money, further imperiling our wild fish and perpetuating the certainty for businesses and communities. Or we can urge McMorris Rodgers to reverse course on this bad bill and let Northwest citizens work together toward a future that includes abundant salmon and a thriving economy.
Josh Mills of Spokane is a board member of the Wild Steelhead Coalition.