Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Seattle Times Editorial: Judge still riding feds to restore dwindling Columbia River salmon

Map depicting ESA listed stocks in the Columbia Basin from the Oregonian

On the heels of Judge Redden's ruling against the latest iteration of the Columbia River BiOp, Steven Hawley - author of Restoring a Lost River - published an illuminating editorial in the Seattle Times, examining the road ahead for the Columbia and Snake Rivers and the tepid response thus far from federal agencies. Hawley also points to the problematic relationship between NOAA fisheries and the BPA and the conflict of interest it creates on the Columbia system. Hawley advocates for a more good faith effort on the Columbia that does more than simply protect the status quo and the entrenched interests in the basin. Billions of public dollars have already been spent on recovery, yet arguable the most effective tool (short of dam removal) available to managers, happened because of a court order.

Judge still riding feds to restore dwindling Columbia River salmon

Guest columnist Steven Hawley considers the implications of the recent federal court ruling against federal agencies' salmon-management plan on the Columbia River.

Special to The Times

THE feds have struck out again in trying to come up with a legal plan to restore dwindling Columbia River salmon.

U.S. District Judge James Redden ruled against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its sister federal agencies' salmon-management plan on the Columbia River. His 24-page decision cited federal defendants' "lack of, or at best, marginal compliance" with Endangered Species Act law, their "history of abruptly changing course, abandoning previous bi-ops [biological opinions] and failing to follow through with their commitments."

Redden gave yet another last chance, in 2014, to come up with a workable plan.

But the comments of NOAA-Fisheries Northwest Regional Administrator Will Stelle last week may have Redden already regretting the forbearance granted: "I think it is fundamentally encouraging that the heart of his opinion was to find that the (recovery) plan is sound," Stelle told The Seattle Times.

A similarly obtuse statement was jointly issued by the Bureau of Reclamation, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration.

"We're encouraged by the court's basic conclusion that the biological opinion should remain in place through the end of 2013, that it is providing 'adequate protection for listed species' and that we should tighten up on the habitat program beginning in 2014."

This fantasy-league reading of Redden's decision, which feds and industry shills are promoting, is another cynical exercise in slick public relations. Redden declared the federal opinion invalid for the entire 10-year period, ending in 2018, covered by the biological opinion. He ordered the feds to implement habitat work through 2013 because those were the only plans the feds had listed and funded that meet the standards the law requires.

Most important, Redden continues to be deeply skeptical of the federal approach to salmon recovery. The issue before the court has been to determine the level of harm done to salmon runs by the dams. The feds continue to defer an honest answer to that question by conniving and coercing stakeholders into signing onto the curious concept that building hatcheries plus habitat work in the tributaries will somehow overcome the damage done by thoroughly plugging the mainstem river. This ruse persists, even in the face of growing scientific evidence that actions taken at the dams — more spill, and a serious look at dam removal — will produce the most dramatic and immediate results.

So why would an agency charged with protecting salmon engage the delusion that Redden declared the bi-op sound? One source of trouble might be in the way NOAA gets its money.

Over the decadelong course of this case, three-quarters of NOAA-Fisheries Northwest's budget — $90.2 million — has been paid by the Bonneville Power Administration and the Corps of Engineers. NOAA's "independent" biological opinion, in other words, is funded primarily by their co-defendants in Redden's court.

The federal defendants also have a problem with a revolving door between industry and the agencies. NOAA deputy regional administrator Bruce Suzumoto is a former BPA and utility industry scientist. BPA's president of Fish and Wildlife Affairs is Lori Bodi, a former NOAA attorney in its general counsel office. NOAA has a long history of hiring key scientists from the BPA or the Army Corps of Engineers.

We've spent $10 billion on a salmon-recovery program that's failing badly. Overall Columbia River salmon runs are half what they were when the recovery effort began 30 years ago.

Meanwhile, the Columbia Basin hydrosystem has racked up a $17 billion debt, gained mostly through ill-fated ventures with other utility interests. As taxpayers and ratepayers obligingly foot the bill for both fish and wildlife and utility programs that reliably betray the public interest, we might do well to scrutinize federal fisheries lawyers, scientists and administrators as closely as we have the fish.

Steven Hawley is the author of "Recovering a Lost River: Rewilding Salmon, Re-vitalizing Communities, Removing Dams" (Beacon Press). He lives in Hood River, Ore.

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