Latest salmon plan flawed but Northwest's best bet

By the Herald editorial staff

Plans for restoring endangered Northwest salmon runs took an unwelcome turn last week.

The latest version of the biological opinion -- the salmon recovery document mandated by the Endangered Species Act -- keeps dam breaching on the table.

It's a frustrating development, but a pragmatic one for the federal agencies that must answer to U.S. District Judge James Redden.

Rep Doc Hastings got it half right last week, when he said, "I think that this was done to appease James Redden and environmental groups."

It's doubtful anyone really expected this updated plan to satisfy the radical environmentalists pushing for dam removal.

Nothing short of tearing out the four dams on the Lower Snake River will appease them, and their opposition to last week's changes proves it.

Hastings is right about Redden, however.

The new language in the BiOp is a clear attempt to address concerns the judge raised earlier this year.

Redden is presiding over what's starting to look like a permanent legal battle over operation of the federal government's dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers.

The case has been stuck in limbo, waiting for the government to produce a salmon recovery plan that's acceptable to Redden.

The last plan -- drafted under the Bush administration -- didn't include dam breaching, not even as a contingency. That omission was on a laundry list of changes Redden suggested in May.

Will the Obama administration's alterations to the plan appease Redden?

That's tough to say, since nothing has yet.

But at this stage, the best option is to try to addressthe judge's concerns in a way that keeps the Snake River dams.

This version of the BiOp does that. It's true that dam removal becomes the option of last resort under the plan, but the dams are safe unless other recovery efforts fail and studies prove that taking them down is the right move.

No wonder the dam-breaching lobby hates the new language. The changes propose a rational approach to the issue, which doesn't leave them much chance for success.

The action plan for salmon recovery -- agreed to by a coalition that includes most Northwest states, the federal government and Indian tribes -- is already moving forward.

Habitat restoration and changes in dam operations initiated under the plan will improve salmon survival, and it's probable that levels will never fall far enough to trigger the dam-breaching option.

But if it's necessary to consider taking out the four Lower Snake River dams, studies are more likely to prove that it's not a viable option.

What effect would releasing tons of silt and contaminants trapped behind the dams have on fish? How much environmental harm would be caused by the massive amount of construction work required to remove the dams?

If it's necessary to replace the electricity produced at the dams with other sources, it will mean additional greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. What are the environmental implications?

The dams produce enough power for a city the size of Seattle. How much will it cost to replace it with other sources?

More importantly, will taking out the dams even save endangered salmon runs?

It's a tough path to dam breaching -- tough enough that the changes from the Obama administration has the support of dams' staunchest supporters.

Darryll Olsen, of the Columbia Snake River Irrigators Association, gave the new language a thumbs up.

"There would have to be tremendous drops in the runs before you would even do the study for a drawdown or breaching. It's good forirrigation, power, recreation and navigation," he told the Herald.

We think Hastings speaks for most folks in the Northwest when he says dam removal shouldn't be on the table. One thing's certain -- he won't lose any vote in the 4th Congressional District making that case.

But Redden is reality, and the Obama administration's changes to the salmon plan set appropriate hurdles for dam removal.

Giving the constraints set by the judge, this plan is the Northwest's best bet for saving our salmon.