Judge Redden Asks Us
by Editorial Board
Do we truly have the will to undo this?
This was an instance in which the words "damming" and "damning" both apply. The last of these dams wasn't constructed until the 1960s. It was already well understood that the government was making a deliberate choice between industrializing the Columbia-Snake river system versus salvaging salmon runs and the web of life dependent on them.
Roman Polanski's celebrated 1974 movie Chinatown famously dramatized the blatant and legally dubious efforts that siphoned water away from rural areas to quench the growing thirst of Los Angeles. The battle over the Snake River deserves similarly rich artistic interpretation, containing as it does many of the same elements of big money overwhelming smaller rural interests.
When the movie about the theft of the Snake is made, federal Judge James Redden will certainly figure prominently. Redden, who spent years overseeing Columbia dams/ salmon litigation, has taken himself off the case. But he was back in the news last week after saying it is his view dams must come down if the nation is truly to comply with treaty and statutory obligations to protect endangered salmon species.
But even while saying "I think we need to take those dams down," Redden quickly adds that in all his rulings on the matter, he never even tried to actually make such an order. This is a tacit acknowledgement that some political boulders are far too big for even a tough old federal judge to budge. When he says we need to remove dams, he thus is clearly speaking as a citizen to the nation as a whole and our leaders.
As hydrosystem advocate Terry Flores of Northwest RiverPartners observed, the four dams produce enough electricity to power the city of Seattle without generating greenhouse gases, while at the same time providing a navigation channel that reaches into Idaho. It would be difficult to walk away from all that.
And yet if we care about being wise stewards of a sustainable and biologically diverse world, damming healthy rivers is a ridiculous choice - one that we would be unlikely to make today. Do we have the political will to undo the dams that an earlier generation chose to erect? This will continue to be a potent and fascinating question.
In the meantime, Redden's court-ordered steps including spilling water past dams to facilitate salmon passage remain vital. We must continue to seek out additional ways to restore as much natural functionality as possible to the Snake-Columbia system. All this should have been required from the beginning as genuine mitigation for the damage the dams caused, but better late than never.
The wise man of the river has spoken. Will we listen?
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