Today the federal government released its latest plan for operating the dams and locks on the Columbia and Snake rivers in ways supposedly compliant with Endangered Species Act protections for some salmon runs. The latest plan is supposed to address deficiencies found in prior plans that were exposed by a federal lawsuit brought by commercial and sport salmon fishermen and conservation groups. But despite two years of work and a clarion warning from the federal courts that it must not ignore the Endangered Species Act, the plan still sells salmon and the communities that depend on them short.
The government plan rejects the only good news to come out of the Columbia and Snake River basins in recent years; court-ordered water releases succeeded in assisting juvenile salmon in their migration to sea. This year salmon that rode the water releases down river in 2005 and 2006 came back in far greater numbers than their siblings that were captured upstream and barged down river. In spite of the concrete evidence that releasing water over upstream dams at certain times increases juvenile salmon survival, the latest federal plan gives dam managers the option to discontinue the water releases during the critical month of August. It also halts these releases earlier in the spring migration.
The plan was prepared by the Bonneville Power Administration, which sells the power, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operate the dams. The document released today -- called a biological opinion -- is NOAA Fisheries' draft approval of that plan.
National conservation, fishing, and taxpayer advocates are urging Congress to step into the fray.
"This plan buys us nothing but dead fish, ghost towns for river and coastal communities, and invisible results from taxpayer money spent on phantom methods that will haunt us for years," said Dan Ritzman, Northwest Regional Director of the Sierra Club. "We need Congress and our governors to step in now to provide oversight and leadership to ensure this plan is dead and buried once and for all."
"This administration has had multiple opportunities to come up with real solutions to restore Pacific Northwest salmon to healthy, sustainable levels. Instead, they've handed over another plan full of smoke and mirrors that doesn't give these fish a chance," said Nicole Cordan, Policy and Legal Director for Save Our Wild Salmon. "We need a plan that follows the science and the law."
The new draft Biological Opinion, released today by NOAA Fisheries, is the result of a court-ordered rewrite of the 2004 federal salmon plan that was ruled illegal by federal court Judge James Redden, a decision emphatically upheld by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in April.
"Three years ago, this administration came up with a salmon strategy based on the ridiculous premise that man-made dams are a permanent part of the natural environment. The courts sent the agencies back to the drawing board, in part because they refused to consider major changes to the dams," said Todd True of Earthjustice. "Based on what we're seeing today, they apparently didn't get the message -- or chose to ignore it. This 'new' plan is about little more than protecting the dams, regardless of the harm they do to salmon and the communities that depend upon them."
The new plan, which would guide salmon recovery efforts in the Columbia and Snake River basin for the next decade, includes provisions for habitat restoration, hatchery production, and predator control that are essentially the same as those in the prior plan, with no significant changes to the region's federal system of managing dams, locks, and river flows. The plan does not acknowledge, let alone consider, removal of the four dams on the lower Snake River that do the most harm to the basin's endangered salmon.
"The administration's plan not only deliberately ignores science, it also ignores economics and the tens of thousands of people from the Pacific salmon states who rely on these fish for their livelihoods and have for generations. By abandoning salmon recovery and pushing these fish closer to extinction, the new federal plan is allowing four obsolete, outdated dams to limit our jobs, our fishing, and our very way of life," said Zeke Grader, executive director Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.
"This administration needs to stop pushing science aside when making decisions that impact America's natural heritage. They've done it with the spotted owl, they've done it with global warming, and they are doing it with salmon throughout the West," said James Schroeder, National Wildlife Federation senior environmental policy specialist.
A final version of the plan is expected by the end of January, 2008.
Todd True, Earthjustice, (206) 343-7340, ext. 30
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