The government's latest plan for managing the huge hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers abandons the goal of recovering native salmon and steelhead. It will cost ratepayers and taxpayers $6 billion over the next 10 years. Meanwhile, a recent economic study shows that salmon and steelhead fisheries could actually net the region almost $6 billion each year if salmon and steelhead were given the chance to survive and recover. (Read a pdf of the study.)
"Today, we took a step in the right direction for the people of the Northwest," said Charles Hudson, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "Billions of dollars come into this region every year from tribal, commercial and sport fishing, yet we continue to treat this as an afterthought. We must stop flushing money away and take the necessary steps to ensure economic stability for the region."
The court filing asks for two things to reduce the risks facing salmon survival and recovery in the Columbia and Snake rivers. First, that the federal agencies take steps to move the baby salmon down the river and to the ocean more quickly. Second, that they change the way water gets past some of the dams so that more of it goes over the dam spillways, the safest way for the young salmon to get downstream and avoid the hydroelectric turbines. These two steps will also allow more baby salmon to migrate to the sea in the river rather than be captured and trucked or barged downstream. Scientists say that in-river migration is generally a much safer and more reliable way for salmon to reach the ocean. According to federal, state and tribal scientists, following these measures is the best way to reduce the risks to salmon this year when water supplies are at a record low.
"Spending $6 billion on a 'pray for rain' plan, which doesn't actually try to reduce the risk of extinction that salmon face, is not cost effective or responsive to the 36,500 family wage jobs in the sportfishing industry," said Liz Hamilton, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. "Four years from now, none of us will care that we didn't water our lawns or that we paid a few cents more per month on our electric bills to provide more water for spill and flow for salmon and steelhead. But four years from now when there aren't any fish returning because we didn't do those things, the bottom will drop out of this region’s fishing economy."
A recent study concluded that a restored salmon and steelhead sport fishery would bring almost $550 million each year to Idaho's economy. That is a 170 percent increase from what Idaho saw from a limited fishery in 2001. Extrapolating that same increase to Oregon and Washington would mean that salmon and steelhead sport fishing could bring more than $5.5 billion per year to the Northwest. Northwest business leaders say that even half that number would bring an economic boon to river and rural towns and a large increase in jobs across the region. Tribal and commercial fisheries would bring hundreds of millions of dollars more to the region each year.
"This administration prides itself on fostering small business enterprise," said John Kober, National Wildlife Federation. "However, unless the court intervenes with some protective measures for salmon, the administration will continue to ignore the pleas of the Northwest fishing industry, which could go extinct along with the fish."
This year will be one of the lowest water years on record. Runoff in the Snake River is now expected to be at 44 percent of normal. In 2001, a similarly dry year, federal agencies abandoned many salmon protections, and the result was the deadliest migration for salmon and steelhead since being placed on the Endangered Species list in the early 1990s. The tribes and fishing and conservation groups estimate the measures they have asked the court to order will boost salmon survival in this very difficult year by 50 percent.
"Supporters of the current plan are raising the specter of skyrocketing utility bills and power shortages for the Northwest," said Sara Patton, NW Energy Coalition. "In fact, most electric customers will see little impact on their monthly bills. More importantly in both the short and long runs, ratepayers will benefit because their dollars will be spent on practical recovery efforts, rather than adding to the millions being endlessly wasted on actions with virtually no chance of success."
Earthjustice is representing the fishing and conservation groups in this matter.