Today the National Marine Fisheries Service released a draft plan that is intended to conform dam operations on the Columbia and Snake Rivers with federal law requiring protection of some salmon species. The plan, which is supposed to chart a course for the survival and recovery of Columbia and Snake River salmon and steelhead, reverses a past federal position acknowledging the harm dams pose to salmon and now says dams no longer harm salmon. The new plan, overseen by Bush administration political appointees, calls for river flows and dam operations that meet dictates of electrical generators and barge operators while failing the legal requirement of promoting survival and recovery of salmon protected under the ESA.
"Today's plan disregards sound science and the law. As a consequence, it will hurt the people of the Northwest in the long run. Such an extreme change of directions is not just bad news for imperiled salmon; it is bad news for people too." said Todd True, Earthjustice. "This administration was asked to take several reasonable steps forward toward long-term salmon recovery and instead they have taken pretty much every giant step backwards they could find."
In May of last year, Federal District Court Judge James Redden deemed the 2000 hydro operations plan, called a biological opinion, illegal under the Endangered Species Act and ordered it replaced with a stronger plan within the year. Today's draft plan is an unfortunate indicator of where the government is headed.
"This plan has gone from bad to worse," said John Kober, National Wildlife Federation. "Instead of ensuring that we will see long-term salmon recovery and abundance, it jeopardizes whether we will have salmon or all."
The main problem with dams is they block salmon migration up and down river. Juvenile salmon die in the still water reservoirs formed on the upstream side of the dams due to the lack of downstream current needed to move them to the ocean.
Salmon provide billions of dollars and thousands of jobs to people living throughout the Northwest. The Bush administration position poses a direct threat not just to salmon but also to the jobs and economy that depend on their continued existence. In Idaho alone, the dams are keeping an estimated $240 million dollars annually out of the economy.
Suppression of Science
Like the administration's recent draft salmon hatchery policy, this new salmon plan ignores sound science. For example, the administration has rejected the practice of considering long-term population trends, which show salmon numbers in the Columbia and Snake Rivers down 94 percent from historic levels, in favor of looking only at very recent years when exceptionally good ocean conditions have helped increase salmon numbers. Although still above the disastrously low levels of the 1990s, recent salmon returns are far below what scientists say is needed for the survival and recovery of self-sustaining, harvestable salmon populations.
"The recent 'upswing' in salmon returns is fading and was never as good as it was made out to be." said Pat Ford, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon. "Basing the new plan on the trends that we've seen for only the last few years will bring back the devastatingly low wild salmon numbers that we saw in the 1990s.
Scientists say that each dam on the Columbia and Snake Rivers kills five to 15 percent of the salmon migrating through it. Unlike the previous plan, the administration's new approach fails to even consider the option of removing the four lower Snake River dams and instead treats the dams as part of the "natural" environment. By ignoring the science about dams, the plan makes the remarkable finding that the dams actually have a positive effect for certain species of salmon.
"To say that the dams are actually good for salmon goes against basic common sense," said Rob Masonis, regional director of American Rivers. "Just three sockeye returned to Redfish Lake in Idaho to spawn in 2003 and now the Bush administration says Snake River sockeye are not in jeopardy. That does not pass the straight-face test."
Reinterpretation of the Endangered Species Act
The Endangered Species Act calls not only for the survival of listed salmon but also for their recovery to self-sustaining populations. Two recent court decisions from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has legal authority in states that include the Columbia and Snake Rivers, have clearly restated this basic requirement of the Endangered Species Act.
However the new federal salmon plan assumes the government is only required to assure the bare survival of the salmon, not their recovery. Current estimates project the possible extinction of some Snake River salmon stocks as early as 2016, exposing taxpayers to billions of dollars in compensation payments to Columbia River Basin tribes with whom the US has treaties.
"All we want are healthy, sustainable salmon runs and a plan to get us there," said Liz Hamilton, executive director NW Sportfishing Industry Association. "We are close to just one El Niño away from population collapses and the ensuing crash of our salmon fishing industry. To say that the best we can do for salmon is what we're currently doing just isn't good enough."
In addition, the administration has redefined "survival" to mean only that the dams must avoid "appreciably" increasing current rates of salmon decline. According to the plan, as long as dams are not increasing the speed at which salmon are going extinct, dam operators are not required to stem the decline.
"We've been patient, we've taken our share of the burden, now it is time for real leadership and real commitment for salmon," said Glen Spain, regional director Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "We want this administration and its agencies to stop ignoring the fishing industry and the health of our rivers and give us a plan that actually recovers salmon."
Todd True, Earthjustice (206) 343-7340, x. 30
Bill Sedivy, Idaho Rivers United (208) 343-7481
Rob Masonis, American Rivers (206) 213-0330
Liz Hamilton, NW SIA (503) 631-8859
Glen Spain, PCFFA(541) 689-2000
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