There’s good news and bad news for Northwest’s salmon

Tacoma News TribuneSeptember 22, 2013 

First the good news: On Sept. 9, a record 64,000 adult fall chinook salmon passed Bonneville Dam near the mouth of the Columbia River. For a change, fishing limits are being adjusted upward – a great sign for our fall chinook and for Northwest fishermen.

Here’s the bad news: In an ironic twist, Sept. 9 was the same day federal agencies unveiled their latest woefully inadequate draft plan for addressing the perils posed by Columbia Basin dams to the 13 endangered salmon and steelhead populations that are not faring nearly as well as this year’s fall chinook. That plan proposes cuts to some of the same measures that helped bring about this year’s returns.

Over the past 12 years, courts have rejected three straight proposed plans (known as Biological Opinions) as inadequate and illegal, and the “new” 751-page document hit the region not with a splash but a thud.

The Bonneville Power Administration and its partner federal agencies appear to be trying an end-run the court’s most recent decision in 2011. The draft fails to improve on the rejected plan it’s supposed to replace. In fact, it seeks to weaken critical fish protections and greatly increases the likelihood of further litigation.

If adopted in its current form, this plan risks forcing the region into another extended court battle just as we are moving toward a new collaborative approach to solving the decades-long debate over salmon restoration.

The feds would allow early termination of summertime salmon spill, which refers to spilling water over the tops of dams and sending migrating young salmon to the ocean more quickly and safely. Spring and summer spill have proved our most effective near-term measures for boosting endangered salmon and steelhead populations.

Spill is the law on the river. The court first ordered federal agencies to implement spill in 2006 as the line of illegal salmon plans began to lengthen. Seven years later, the results are undeniable. Regional scientists find that spill increases juvenile fish survival through the hydrosystem and the numbers of returning adults, thus helping fish and boosting fishing jobs. This month’s huge fall chinook return is a testament to the value of the court-ordered spill (aided by favorable ocean conditions).

Today, many state, federal and tribal scientists agree that greater spill levels could recover some at-risk populations in the basin. They believe the feds should include a real-world test of expanded spill in their new plan, rather than trying to roll back a highly successful strategy.

Clearly, our hydrosystem managers want to wring as much marketable electricity out the dams as they can. But concerns about rising consumer power bills from reduced generation due to spill are exaggerated at best.

The region’s official power planning agency, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, found that record energy efficiency achievements make it possible to give water back to fish – and wean the region off coal power – without raising families’ electric bills one iota.

The Obama administration can still make this right. In their final plan, due by the end of the year, the feds can join the rising chorus of Northwest voices calling on stakeholders – fishermen, farmers, energy producers and others – to work together on effective, long-term solutions to our shared salmon, energy and transportation challenges.

Salmon and salmon-economy supporters can submit their official comments (2013DraftFCRPS@noaa.gov) calling for significant improvements before the Oct. 7 deadline. Our elected leaders – including Gov. Jay Inslee and U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell – must also weigh in to assure continued movement toward shared solutions for endangered salmon and people of the Northwest.

Bill Arthur of Seattle, the Sierra Club’s deputy national field director, has been a leader in wild salmon restoration for the past 10 years. Sara Patton of Seattle is executive director of the NW Energy Coalition, which advocates for policies promoting energy efficiency, renewable energy, consumer and low-income protections, and restoration of fish and wildlife affected by Northwest power production.

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