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.

Small hydro dams show environmental tradeoffs in fighting climate change

[caption id="attachment_3240" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="We're talking about set-ups like this... although a lot smaller. That's the point. Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Energy"]We're talking about set-ups like this... although a lot smaller. That's the point. Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Energy[/caption]

Quick -- before it goes behind the pay wall -- check out this intriguing Wall Street Journal story on how plans to combat climate change could mean tearing up the wilderness.

The WSJ's Jim Carlton points out that across the country, and particularly in the West, are streams where power providers would like to install small hydroelectric dams. From a climate-change standpoint, this is great: Carbon-free power! Enough to serve millions of homes! And often, no threat of NIMBYs, says the piece, datelined in Sultan, Wash., just up the road from InvestigateWest World Headquarters:

A big public utility is on the  cusp of building a hydroelectric-power plant on a picture-perfect stream in the Pacific Northwest, but the plan has yet to draw the usual opposition.

That is in part because approved project, which involves building a dam on a tributary called Youngs Creek, is so small and remote that is has attracted little notice.

However, Carlton points out, the cumulative impact of actually building the thousands of these plants envisioned by power producers could have a substantial impact in the form of crisscrossing the backcountry with roads needed to build and maintain the dams.

The numbers cited by Carlton here in Washington state are instructive:

According to the U.S.

Keep Bristol Bay area closed to mining, Alaska groups say

Sportsmen, businesses and conservationists in Alaska banded together this week to send a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar requesting he block a plan that would open nearly 1 million acres to potential oil and gas leasing and mining, reports Elizabeth Bluemink of the Anchorage Daily News. The plan to open federal land in the Bristol Bay region would harm rivers and streams that support already-troubled populations of salmon, the groups say.

The Bureau of Land Management is behind the plan to open the land, although studies it issued last year indicate the nearly 1 million acres "didn't appear to contain valuable resources." This has many questioning the validity of the studies, since the land is downriver from the highly-valuable proposed Pebble Mine. Critics ask: If the land doesn't have viable mineral deposits, why open it to mining?

The BLM says reasons to keep the land closed are outdated. The 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act created native corporations in Alaska and allowed them to select parcels of holdings before anyone else could stake claims. Now that most of the parcels have been divvied up, the BLM doesn't see the point in waiting longer before leasing remaining lands. Those in favor of opening the land counter that the sportfishermen wouldn't have hooks if it wasn't for mining.

It all comes down to resource value. Competing interests for mines, dams, recreation and wildlife habitat have been exacerbated by recent concerns over salmon population declines throughout the Pacific Northwest. This has led to some surprising partnerships, like the one between loggers and environmentalists as InvestigateWest reported earlier.