Columbia River

Obama administration to skeptical judge: Bush's salmon-rescue plan is A-OK

To highlight yet another example of how the Obama administration's environmental policies don't always look that different from the Bush administration's, note that today the National Marine Fisheries Service tried to assure a skeptical federal judge that a Bush-era salmon-rescue plan was just fine -- even though it ruled out disabling dams on the Snake River.

For years, U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland has been ruling that the Bush administration's blueprint to bring back struggling salmon runs on the Snake and Columbia rivers just didn't measure up. When environmentalists, tribes, sportfishing interests and the state of Oregon complained that the Obama-era Fisheries Service plan was no better than Bush's, Redden gave the agency three months to review the plan.

A pivotal question is whether four dams on the Snake River -- which produced about 5 percent of the Pacific Northwest's electricity, last I checked -- should be "breached," meaning partially removed to let the river flow more freely again. The dams and the changes they cause in the river kill some of the small salmon migrating to sea there.

After a three-month review, the Fisheries Service said the Bush-era plan needed only minor modifications. It refused to start the years-long planning process that would be required to breach the dams. It didn't even budge on a lesser step: letting more water flow through the dams without producing electricity -- "spill" -- to help the fish.

The best quote of the day -- and even this is a tired analogy, bearing witness to the tenure of this controversy -- came from Nicole Cordan, a campaigner with Save Our Wild Salmon:

Snake, Columbia rivers' salmon recovery plan nearing approval

U.S. District Judge James Redden lauded the Obama Administration's tweaks to his predecessor's deficient plan for improving salmon runs along the dam-studded Columbia and Snake Rivers.

The Idaho Statesman reports Redden said just "a little bit of work" would be needed to win approval for the federal hydroelectric system's salmon recovery plan along those rivers, whose power lights up most of the Pacific Northwest, after more than 10 years in court.

But Redden also said that the legality of the plan -- known as the biological option or BioP -- could be challenged unless the Obama Administration formally adds its changes to the plan or puts the science behind them through public review.  The Endangered Species Act forces the government to study and mitigate the impact of its hydroelectric system on salmon.

The state of Oregon, the Spokane and Nez Perce tribes and environmentalists disagree with the plan, which wouldn't breach four Snake River dams that have ravaged salmon runs unless the salmon were right on the brink of extinction.  The states of Washington and Idaho and other tribes back the plan and its more than $1 billion in federal recovery efforts over the next decade.

The Oregonian reports the federal government is so intent on hording all the power produced by the dams that it doesn't want to continue spilling water over the tops during peak salmon runs, despite their proven success at helping recover salmon runs by easing their downstream passage.

Obama team witholds scientists' names in Columbia Basin salmon plan

Just two days ago, InvestigateWest reported that environmentalists were unhappy with the Obama administration's barely tweaked version of a Bush-era rescue plan for critically endangered salmon of the Columbia and Snake Rivers. The administration, including former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, who as commerce secretary is boss of the agency responsible for salmon  recovery, has said its updated plan is backed by "sound science."

So now environmentalists are asking: Who are these scientists, anyway? So far, no one's saying.

As part of its review process, the administration called on independent scientists to comment on the plan, said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service. But the names of these scientists have not yet been released. Gorman said he knew there had been some discussion about privacy issues, but he did not know how the situation was being resolved. He referred us to Fisheries Service contact David Miller in Washington, D.C., who has not yet returned an InvestigateWest phone call.

Save Our Wild Salmon, an alliance of salmon advocates including enviros, fishermen, scientists and others, has closely followed the Columbia Basin salmon story and recently released its own "Top 10" list of ways to improve the 2008 plan -- many of which did not make it into the updated version.

Natalie Brandon, communications director for Save Our Wild Salmon, said the group has asked repeatedly for the names of the scientists involved in the plan, and the analysis that led to their decision.

Obama team reveals plan to save the Columbia Basin's salmon

One of the Northwest's most hotly contested salmon rescue plans was unveiled today by the Obama administration, and to the dismay of many environmentalists -- it doesn't stray far from Bush's 2008 proposal, reports Matthew Preusch of the Oregonian.

Obama and his team had until today to make changes to a Bush-era formula for protecting endangered runs of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin, tackling a long-running dispute on how to balance energy needs with salmon conservation. The new plan, called a biological opinion and required by the Endangered Species Act, in many ways, defends the old one, finding it to be "fundamentally sound." Said Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, who dealt with salmon issues and was criticized by environmentalists when he was Washington governor for trying to appease agricultural interests:

This biological opinion, backed by sound science and tremendous state and tribal support, will help preserve the vibrancy and vitality of the Columbia and Snake River basins for generations to come.

The Columbia River has blessed the region's residents with cheap hydroelectric power and broad navigation routes, but the area's federally protected salmon have seen far better days. Environmentalists say that four dams on the Snake River in particular are derailing salmon recovery efforts, which have not improved since the mid 1980s, and U.S. District Court Judge James Redden, who has thrown out previous  Bush administration plans, has agreed -- more or less. In 2005, he ordered the feds to temporarily increase the amount of water spilling from the dams.

Tale of two Northwest sagas: Hanford dust-up may be over, while salmon suit marches on

There have been significant developments this week in two of the longest-running environmental sagas in the Pacific Northwest, both pitting locals against the federal government. One is ostensibly resolved, while the other looks like it might never end:

  • The mega-slow cleanup pace of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation has been the subject of years of fights between Washington and the federal government, with deadlines set and agreed upon, and then promptly broken. This week Energy Secretary Stephen Chu traveled to Washington and inked another deal, again with court-enforceable deadlines, appearing near Hanford with Washignton Gov. Christine Gregoire and Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski. The deal gives the feds another 20 years to get the job done, Scott Learn of The Oregonian points out. (Chu also announced -- and this seems like it should have gotten more attention -- the release of $343 million in stimulus money to build new transmission lines to help use the Northwest's rapidly increasing supply of wind power. Tip of the hat to Anna King of KPLU for covering this.)
  • Meanwhile, down in Portland, environmentalists and the state of Oregon have prosectued a yearslong court case against the Bush administration, claiming its plan to rescue salmon on the Snake and Columbia rivers is inadequate. The fish are protected under the Endangered Species Act, and many environmentalists say the only sure way to save them is to knock out four dams on the Snake. For a while speculation rose high that U.S. District Judge James Redding would step in and run the federal hydropower system on the rivers, but he seems reluctant to do so.

Columbia River barges involved in 5 mishaps

Tidewater Barge Lines vessels carrying a total of more than six million gallons of gasoline have been involved in five mishaps on the Columbia River in the last year and a half. Scott Learn of the Oregonian reports that officials have little to say about the incidents, citing confidentiality of ongoing investigations that have lasted up to 16 months. Three times the vessels went aground. The other two involved accidents at locks. The Vancouver, Wash.-based company's barges all have double hulls and multiple cargo compartments to reduce the likelihood of a spill from grounding, and reduce the amount of any spill. The company's last spill was in 1993.

Cut CA farms’ water to help Northwest’s orcas?

One doesn’t usually think of water used on farms in California as being in competition with the orcas of the Pacific Northwest. But that’s what a new federal endangered-species plan does, pointing out that water withheld from streams where salmon breed in the Central Valley affects orcas’ food supplies. Orcas specialize in salmon, particularly the Chinook. The National Marine Fisheries Service’s report could be used to restrict irrigation water in the valley, the nation’s leading producer of farmed goods. Les Blumenthal of McClatchy News Service does a good job highlighting an unspoken contradiction in the feds’ plan: While the California plan clearly says harming salmon hurts orcas, a separate Bush-era plan on the salmon stocks of the Columbia and Snake rivers – aimed at keeping intact electricity-producing dams that harm salmon – downplays the risk to orcas. It says additional salmon for orcas to eat can always be produced in hatcheries. Look here to find out why hatcheries might prove a problematic solution.