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Cassidy Hangs Up Hat

by Erik Robinson
The Columbian, March 24, 2008

Larry Cassidy, who has spent three decades operating in the corridors of power, was visiting the U.S. Interior Department headquarters earlier this month when he caught notice of a bald man with a cane ambling down a hallway.

It had been almost 30 years since Cassidy had last seen U.S. Rep. John Dingell.

Cassidy, a Vancouver resident who then served as chairman of the state game commission, recalled a fishing trip he spent with the powerful Michigan Democrat back in 1979. Dingell, then and now chairman of the influential House Energy and Commerce Committee and a legendary advocate of wild creatures, was at the time considering what to do about a bill to regulate new power plants in the Pacific Northwest.

"I said, 'At some point, some time, somebody's got to give a voice to fish,' " Cassidy recalled.

By the time Dingell got through with it, the Northwest Power Act of 1980 for the first time forged a balance between the Columbia River hydropower system and the wild creatures - especially salmon and steelhead - that predated it.

Three decades later, Cassidy said, Dingell asked how that was going.

"It's better," Cassidy said, "but we've got plenty of work left to do."

Cassidy recently stepped down after a decade as one of two Washington representatives to the four-state Northwest Power and Conservation Council created by the 1980 law.

At 68, Cassidy recognized that it's time for him to move on. Before completely exiting the public scene, he sat down with The Columbian. The following interview is condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: You've raised concern about water demands in the future. Why?

A: We need to continue to grow economically in the Northwest region. In the agricultural industry, to grow you need more water. That could bode trouble for fish because they have to have clean water, spawnable gravel and constant stream flow to make that work. In Washington, over one-third of the sub-basins in the Columbia River basin are legally over-appropriated (by state-granted water rights). People aren't using all those water rights. Were they to do that, we could dry up a third of the streams. That doesn't bode well for fish.

How can water be a problem in such a notoriously soggy climate?

People need to realize that water is a finite resource, not an infinite resource. And were it not for an agreement we have now with Canada, which expires in 2024, we won't even have the flows we do today. I can assure you, that Canadians have no intention of selling that water as cheap for the next 60 years as they did for the first 60 years when we made this deal.

Scientists have raised concern about a changing climate reducing snowpack in the Northwest. How do you see those concerns?

If we were to have a serious global change in (stream) runoff, (it) could affect our ability to store water and it could affect our hydroelectric power contribution. We need to look at more conservation and we need to look at other forms of energy. You know the old saying: "Whiskey's for drinking, water's for fighting."

The overwhelming majority of adult salmon returning to the Columbia now are raised in hatcheries. Realistically, what are the prospects of restoring native wild-spawning fish to levels big enough to catch?

For natural recovery, it's clear that a hatchery fish will not regenerate continually generation after generation in a stream. If you match up hatchery females and hatchery males and they spawn naturally in the gravel, within a few generations their progeny will disappear. The question I ask is, why? I can't believe we can't make a hatchery fish the equivalent of a wild fish if we take the proper steps. We have men that walked on the moon, we put pumps in people's chests and keep them alive. Don't tell me we can't raise salmon and steelhead to the equivalency of a wild fish. I know we can do it, but it's going to take some changes.

So why focus so much time, money and attention on conserving wild-spawning fish?

If you look at the comparable time that salmon and steelhead have been around, which are hundreds of thousands of years, and the fact that in the last 120 years we have literally goofed this resource up significantly, that ought to bother people. Because I maintain that the salmon and steelhead are an icon of the Northwest, and if they go who's next? If we don't have a level of water that's good enough for fish, what makes you think that we're going to have a level of water that's good enough for you and me?

Given the huge changes in the landscape, and demands on natural resources, how far can or should society go toward conserving wild salmon?

Anyone who expects salmon and steelhead to be recovered to pre-European migration levels in 1850 just isn't using common sense. We're going to have a recovered population to some status - and I think it will be one we can maintain forever - but it's not going to be equivalent to the 1850s. We've just changed the whole structure of Columbia basin and Puget Sound and other areas that are important. But there will be an acceptable level of recovery at a price affordable by the ratepayer in the Columbia basin. Electrical prices are going up, and we have to make sure we don't get to a point where the public says, "I can't take it anymore."

You've advocated removing dams on some Columbia River tributaries?

The Endangered Species Act says you cannot let a species go extinct. And then you also have no political will to remove major projects on the Columbia River. So you have the immovable object being confronted by the unstoppable force. How do you solve that? In my view, you do it by increasing the carrying capacity in the off-site tributaries. That's how you begin to win this game. It's going to be inch by inch, stream by stream, ranch by ranch. It's not a struggle that you can pull a magic wand and say OK, you've got this solved. It's going to be a long-standing commitment. I worry about public support.

Why not remove four federal dams on the lower Snake River, which would open 140 miles of free-flowing river to one of the most historically productive spawning areas in the Columbia basin?

I don't think removing the Snake River dams is something that should be addressed right now because I think we can get recovery without it, but I may be wrong. Removing the Snake dams would have some benefit for fish, but it also would be a huge social step backward with respect to any support we have in Southeast Washington for fish recovery.

You've chosen to continue to be active with the Pacific Ocean Shelf Tracking project. What's that all about?

We've treated the ocean as a black hole throughout all our salmon recovery efforts from the beginning. Only now are we beginning to focus on where these salmon and steelhead go, what kind of migration patterns they take, and what happens to them in the ocean. If salmon spend 75 percent of its lifetime in the ocean, and we don't look at what's going on out there, we're just not being responsible.

What needs to happen to satisfy U.S. District Judge James Redden that the federal government's dam-management plan adequately conserves salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act?

I have two concerns about the current situation. First of all, I'd like to see it get worked out so that the states, the federal government and the tribes are all on the same page. We need to work together and quit fighting in court. Secondly, if the judge were to take over the river, this could present serious issues for Washington. He could say, "OK, the way we're going to provide more flow is to drop Grand Coulee by 4 feet." That's a big problem for Washington state. I'm not saying he's advocating that, but there could be risks to Washington that would not be good.

Erik Robinson
Cassidy Hangs Up Hat
The Columbian, March 24, 2008

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