Federal Government Doing Too Little
by Liz Hamilton
At a time when Americans need their faith in government restored as national lawmakers play chicken with the world economy and approval ratings plummet --- out pops The Federal Family's (Bonneville Power Administration, US Army Corps of Engineers and NOAA Fisheries) new biological opinion, which may surpass even those lows. The court-mandated biological opinion is the cornerstone for salmon recovery in the Columbia Basin. None of the four previous attempts have passed the federal court's straight face test, which has given rise to just how important basic principles of balance-of-power and the judicial branch of government are to the country, and ultimately Columbia Basin salmon.
Salmon are a part of the Oregon brand. Beyond iconic, these fish generate 11,000 jobs in Oregon. The Columbia Basin fuels a region-wide sportfishing economy generating nearly $4 billion in economic benefits and employing more than 34,500. If recovered, this basin becomes a destination for travelers from around the world to fish, enjoy the Oregon brand and leave an economic imprint that could total into the hundreds of millions annually. The lone sentry for these important industry and community-enriching fish are the federal courts. The Federal Family, led by NOAA, has elected to embrace a minimalist approach focused on slowing the extinction rather than recovering these precious salmon. That's at least what the scientists say. Time and again, the American Fisheries Society has looked at these plans and unanimously discarded them as folly, not recovery.
How did we get here? When the dams were built the federal government recognized their impacts on these migratory runs of salmon and steelhead. Our nation passed laws to provide the proper mitigation to assure the future of these species. Since then numerous runs of salmon have gone extinct and 13 others are currently listed as either threatened or endangered. In large part what's happened can be traced directly to the dams and their operation. Again, science, independent science, says so.
Frustrating the courts and stringing this discussion out over decades is of benefit to the dam operators because it means, for the most part, business as usual. Taking the low road might delay the hard choices about what's needed to make sure these fish runs are recovered, but it just throws more money down the hole. In this case, it's certainly reminiscent of that age-old adage of the fox guarding the henhouse.
Not only does the biological opinion not pass muster, it's missing measures widely embraced by fishery scientists that would do more to help fish. For instance, large reservoirs are lethal mazes to salmon, and a drawdown of John Day Reservoir would make it friendlier to baby salmon and more flow is needed to push these baby salmon downstream through eight federal dams. Spilling water over the top of dams has benefited salmon more than any other measure, so much so that a federal judge ordered more spill.
And what did the Federal Family do? Released a plan with less spill rather than using more of what has worked best for increasing salmon returns. What's more, in what appears to be a punitive measure, BPA has announced it will slash funding for a critical program monitoring whether current baseline protections are even working – in the form of coded wire tags that provide key data on where the fish are going and how they are doing. It's time for these federal agencies to do the job they are hired to do, rather than to leave it to the courts to mandate how they do their business moving forward. It's time for government to show us they are on our side.
Count the Fish by Government Accounting Office, GAO-02-612, Salmon and Steelhead Recovery Efforts
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