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Restoring the Lower Snake River

From the desk of Gilly Lyons. June 3, 2014.

Bear.Valley.Creek.VistaDeja vu all over again. Groundhog Day (the Bill Murray version). Reduce, reuse, recycle. Same <stuff>, different day.

Each of these expressions has been used at one time or another over the last 8 or 9 months to describe the virtually-unchanged Columbia-Snake salmon plan issued by federal agencies – first in draft form last September and then in final form in mid-January. And while these phrases are entirely accurate – the 2014 federal salmon plan is almost identical to the illegal 2008/2010 plan it’s supposed to replace – they may not tell the full story. Sure, the federal agencies have issued three illegal plans in a row, and now we have a recently-released fourth attempt that manages to both repeat the mistakes of the past and roll back existing salmon protections.

But what this string of inadequate and failed plans really tells us is that the federal agencies seem intent on a lowest-common-denominator approach to safeguarding Columbia Basin salmon from the impacts of the hydropower system. Rather than ask questions like, “What do salmon actually need in order to survive and recover?” or “What does real salmon restoration look like and how do we get there?” – it’s as though our federal salmon managers are asking, “What’s the least we can get by with under the law?” or “How can we redefine success under the Endangered Species Act so that things look a whole lot better than they really are?”

After nearly two decades of creatively reinterpreting the Endangered Species Act, assiduously avoiding meaningful and substantial changes to the hydrosystem (where the bulk of salmon mortality occurs), touting habitat improvements as a means to mitigate for the harm caused by said hydrosystem despite a lack of evidence showing that such mitigation actually works, and, more recently, sidestepping any attempt to address the clear and present danger posed by climate change, the federal agencies have shown that their eagerness to protect the status quo apparently trumps their interest in ensuring the longterm protection and recovery of salmon and steelhead. Pacific Northwest residents and American taxpayers deserve much more – as do the very species we’re supposed to be restoring.

With stubborn recalcitrance like this, we can only assume that the federal government is itching to go back to court over their latest salmon plan. Since the 2008/2010 salmon plan was ruled illegal almost three years ago (leading to the current plan that was issued in January 2014), conservation and fishing groups have repeatedly asked – actually, more like strongly urged, on occasions too numerous to list – that the Obama Administration seize the opportunity to end the cycle of poor decision-making and litigation and convene a solutions-driven process that brings together a range of stakeholders from across the Columbia Basin to find a durable path forward on this complex, long-running challenge. No dice. More recently, over the last year, salmon advocates, along with the State of Oregon, the Nez Perce Tribe, and others, have proposed a collaborative experimental spill program that could do wonders for salmon survival and productivity – another opportunity to perhaps take a break from the ongoing litigation. Again, the answer so far has been a resounding no (and if you’re an electricity ratepayer in the Northwest, you may be interested to know that Bonneville Power Administration has made every effort to squash the possibility of a spill experiment; indeed, it's safe to say that they’ve spared no expense in trying to ensure this tremendously promising effort doesn’t get off the ground).

So a return to the courtroom may very well be inevitable – and, in the absence of any kind of collaborative process or willingness to consider new measures like expanded spill, a necessary next step toward ensuring our Columbia and Snake River salmon receive the near-term protections they need - and that the law requires. Stay tuned.

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