Decision on Salmon, Steelhead Plan Looms

Published November 1, 2009

Under the watchful eyes of the residents of Washington and Oregon, the Obama administration is preparing to unveil its plan to improve numbers of several species of endangered and threatened salmon and steelhead in the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

The issue bedeviled the Clinton and Bush administrations as large numbers of residents of the two states claimed their interests were ignored by federal government decisions.

Declining numbers of wild salmon—coho, sockeye, chum, and chinook—and steelhead trout led to their being classified as either endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. These fish hatch and spend the first part of their lives in fresh water before migrating to the ocean. Upon reaching sexual maturity, they return to fresh water to spawn.

Economic Concerns

Wild salmon and steelhead undertaking the treacherous migration from the Snake and Columbia Rivers to the Pacific Ocean and back face additional obstacles in the many dams built on those rivers.

The rivers are essential to the economic well-being of rural Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Dams erected along the rivers decades ago supply the region with hydroelectric power, protect against floods, and provide avenues for barge traffic that turned Clarkston, Washington, and Lewiston, Idaho into inland ports. In addition, water from the dams has transformed Eastern Washington from a veritable dustbowl into a vibrant agricultural region.

The same dams that have raised the standard of living for local residents also hinder the migration of salmon and steelhead, however, making any ESA-mandated recovery plan a walk through a political minefield. Three recovery plans—one by the Clinton administration (2000) and two by the Bush administration (2004 and 2008)—were struck down by federal courts.

The Clinton administration determined the dams jeopardized fish runs, and officials didn’t rule out breaching the dams for the salmon and steelhead. But the administration avoided taking that step. Plans developed by the Bush administration expressly ruled out removing the dams, instead favoring installation of devices designed to ease the passage of fish through the dams.

Efforts at Compromise

Before rejecting the second Bush recovery plan, U.S. District Judge James A. Redden in February 2008 approved an agreement between federal and state agencies and fishing and environmental groups. The agreement allows for additional water to be spilled over the dams during spring and summer migrations, creating more-natural conditions for the fish to make their passage.

Redden also will decide whether the Obama administration’s recovery plan, officially known as a Biological Opinion, is compatible with the ESA. Meanwhile, Save Our Wild Salmon, a nationwide coalition of environmental groups, is urging the administration to take a hard line on the dams.

Battle Lines Drawn

In an August 11 letter to Commerce Secretary James Locke, whose department has jurisdiction over NOAA, a group of some 100 scientists, mostly biologists, called for a sharp break with the past. “By failing to address a primary source of salmon mortality—namely, the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers—those federal plans were unlikely to avert extinction, much less restore abundant, self-sustaining, harvestable populations of these species,” they wrote.

Others, however, see dam removal as a calamity for both people and fish. “In Oregon, we don’t have many ‘acceptable’ forms of energy, and this is just one more attack against an energy source that produces reliable and consistent power,” said Todd Wynn, a climate change and energy policy analyst with the Cascade Policy Institute.

“Nuclear power was banned in 1980, a bill was just passed that eliminates future coal use, hydropower is frowned upon because of salmon issues, and even natural gas, including liquid natural gas, is opposed by environmental groups,” said Wynn. “The only power that is acceptable in Oregon is wind and solar power, which will not be able to deliver the reliable energy needed to meet future demand.”

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, DC.