Guest Opinions

Guest Opinion: Use Endangered Species Act to End Columbia River Litigation

Opinion: Save the Puget Sound orca! Keep the lower Snake River dams

Everything you need to know about the debate over the lower Snake River dams and how they relate to saving orca and salmon in 90 seconds.
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Everything you need to know about the debate over the lower Snake River dams and how they relate to saving orca and salmon in 90 seconds.

The Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association (CSRIA) welcomes an opportunity to address the state’s Congressional delegation, and to convey that the Endangered Species Act (ESA) already embodies the statutory authority to end the 27-years of Columbia River Biological Opinion (BiOp) litigation — this contentious issue must be settled by a sane outcome.

We are fortunate that, in 1978, Democrat and Republican U.S. Congressional Representatives understood a great deal about human nature, bureaucratic stalemate, and empty-gesture advocacy.

In completing the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Representatives recognized that implementing the Act could get out of control, the process could become a self-sustaining end in itself, and basic pillars of regional economic stability could become fractured. These men and women also understood that definitive decisions need to be made, and the body politic needs to move on to deal with more vital societal objectives.

They included within the ESA specific provisions granting an exemption to some types of federal agency operations, to exist under a fixed mitigation plan — a plan that would not be subject to perpetual second-guessing or inequitable legal challenges.

So, what does this mean for the Columbia-Snake River litigation?

Absent an ESA exemption, the future will be dictated by U.S. Federal District (OR) Judge Michael Simon, who has ordered another BiOp, to be based on another environmental impact statement, principally targeted toward dam breaching/reservoir drawdowns, as the final solution to the ills of the Snake River salmon and steelhead.

Judge Simon has transcended restrained legal jurisprudence, or realistic concerns for fish survival, and he is now pandering to an Ecotopian vision that will never exist.

The very EIS process he has ordered, dragging-out over three years, begs for an inflammatory crescendo, where no party will accept the March 2020 draft.

The dam breaching debate volume will become deafening; or perhaps more likely, turn into “compromise” cries for deep reservoir drawdowns on some of the Lower Snake River projects, horsing around with pool elevations on the McNary-John Day projects, and pleading for more fish flows from Upper Snake-Columbia Reservoirs.

Whether any of this improves fish runs is overshadowed by the nature of the conflict.

As a far more prudent course of action, the ESA exemption will retain the adaptive management and habitat projects established under the 2014 BiOp, it will maintain juvenile fish transport measures under poor water temperature conditions, it will adopt the 2018-19 project spill regime, and it will continue to fund additional Tribal and agency projects at about $120 million annually.

There is nothing passive or cheap about the ESA exemption.

If the state Congressional Delegation really believes in supporting the ESA, then now is the time to invoke its most critical feature, the exemption process.

Our Congressional Delegation should display the same leadership, courage, and competence of those who drafted the Act. A lack of reasoned governance ensures that there will be no political victories on either side of the Cascade Mountains.

Darryll Olsen, Ph.D., is a CSRIA Board Representative. He has over 30-years of experience working on Columbia-Snake River water management projects and issues.