Northwest Salmon, Lost in the Yellow Zoneby Editors
Seattle Times, January 7, 2004
One marvel of a report card on federal efforts to save endangered wild salmon on the Snake and Columbia rivers is that the assessment is made at all.
The first of three periodic looks at a 10-year effort to save listed species rates the progress somewhere around a C-. The National Marine Fisheries Service describes the work as in a yellow zone, between green for good and red for sound the alarm.
Officially sanctioned finger-pointing among federal agencies is rare.
Two federal agencies that operate fish-killing dams, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, and the federal agency that markets the power, the Bonneville Power Administration, have to convince the fish biologists — and environmentalists and the courts — survival rates can be improved.
All the fact-finding and remedial fish-saving efforts are pointed toward a 2010 decision about breaching dams on the lower Snake to recreate conditions akin to natural river flow.
The template is a biological opinion that says the dams as currently configured are killing listed fish at such a rate as to jeopardize their continued existence. The assumption is that changes at the dams, hatchery improvements and better conditions in the rivers and surrounding watersheds can offset the harm done by the dams.
Instead of waiting 10 years to see if the efforts worked or failed, the fisheries service is charged with evaluations in 2003, 2005 and 2008. This is a laudable and unprecedented attempt to stay focused.
The 18-page evaluation released late last month notes progress made, but is alarmed by the pace of work away from the dams in the watersheds, and the lagging pace of data collection that could complicate future assessments.
The yellow-for-caution rating is meant to convey awareness that benchmarks have been missed, but the work is not fatally behind schedule.
Two factors complicate the task. The fisheries service is an independent federal agency goading three other independent agencies, and the attempt to find a middle point between a nudge and a poke is obvious.
Second, a federal judge has said the underlying biological opinion must offer more certainty that things will be done to protect listed species. That argues for more vigorous prodding by the fisheries service, but it has no authority, much less capacity, to move state and local governments and private property owners to action.
This evaluation is a healthy reminder and good tool for keeping all parties informed. They need to know failure is an unacceptable and massively expensive option.
Breaching dams comes with extraordinary financial costs to taxpayers and the regional energy supply, and little certainty of improved fish runs.
The first report card showed room for improvement, but the act of making the finding public bodes well for change and represents more than good intentions.
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