The Obama Administration
by Matthew Preusch
Today the Obama administration is rolling out its plan to run federal power-producing dams in the Columbia Basin without pushing endangered runs of salmon closer to extinction.
The plan, called a Biological Opinion, affects everything from reservoir levels to electricity bills in the region. And it needs to pass muster with a federal judge in Portland for the government to legally operate the dams.
U.S. District Court Judge James Redden gave the federal government until today to review and make changes to the plan, which was originally submitted last year by the Bush administration.
A story in Monday's Oregonian provides background for announcement, and we'll be providing information and reaction here throughout the day.
The Obama administration says it will support a plan submitted during the Bush years for Northwest salmon.
The government said the plan is legal and scientifically sound if it's implemented with revisions they revealed today.
The administration said it has reservations about how uncertainties like the impacts of climate change could affect the success of the plan, so it will speed up implementation of things like habitat improvement projects; improve monitoring of the effectiveness of salmon friendly projects; and put in place contingency plans should those actions turn out to not be enough to help salmon avoid extinction.
"The time has come to move out of the courtroom and get to work recovering salmon and preserving the region's unique way-of-life," said Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said in a statement. "This biological opinion, backed by sound science and tremendous state and tribal support, will help preserve the vibrancy and vitality of the Columbia and Snake River basins for generations to come."
Significantly, the revised plan directs the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin studying what would be required to remove four lower Snake River dams, but only as a "last resort". Salmon advocates argue removing the dams would be the single most beneficial thing the government could do for the fish.
The 42-page plan is here, and supporting materials are here.
At 10:00 a.m., NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco; Barry Thom, the acting regional administrator of NOAA Fisheries; Steve Wright, Bonneville Power Administration head; Bill McDonald the regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation; and Brig. Gen. William Rapp, division commander of US Army Corps of Engineers, will hold a teleconference with reporters to discuss what they are calling their "insurance policy for the fish."
As expected, the plan is already receiving praise from a coalition of river users, businesses and upriver ports.
"This plan - while expensive - holds the most promise for the region to move forward collectively to do things that actually benefit fish," said Terry Flores, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners.
Salmon advocates and others - including the State of Oregon and Nez Perce Tribe - who challenged the plan in court will issue their reaction to the plan soon, and it is not likely to be favorable.
But the government's most important audience is Judge Redden, who must decide whether the "insurance policy" satisfies the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.
A press conference with the heads of various federal agencies with a stake in Columbia Basin just concluded.
NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco explained that their plan to mitigate for the damage done to salmon by federal dams is legally and scientifically sound, but there is nonetheless some uncertainty.
"We believe the actions in the plan will prevent further declines, but we've added these contingencies just in case," Lubchenco said.
That includes things like curtailing fishing in the short term and, in the long term, the possible breach of Snake River dams.
"Possible breaching of the Snake River dams remains on the table in this plan, but it is considered a contingency of last resort and would only be implemented if the analysis concludes it would be appropriate and in fact beneficial," Lubchenco said.
The NOAA administrator said concerns over how climate change could further imperil fish informed their entire review of the plan.
"It's pretty obvious that climate change is already underway and it's expected to have fairly significant impacts in the Pacific Northwest; therefore, we thought it was good to factor that in to a lot of our thinking," she said.
Steve Wright, BPA administrator, said the administration's adjustments to the 2008 plan would cost an additional $6 million a year on top of the roughly $100 million it's already costing to implement.
In the meantime, salmon advocates issued a release slamming the plan as illegal and inadequate to keep the fish falling towards extinction.
"This Bush salmon plan appears to be inconsistent with President Obama's public statements about relying on sound science," said Bill Shake, former Regional Director for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. "We scientists believed the President when he said he would protect science and strengthen the ESA, but Secretary Locke has seemingly allowed political pressure to circumvent a decision based on sound science.
The Nez Perce Tribe, which advocates for breaching the lower Snake River dams, criticized the administration's handling of their review of the Bush-era plan.
"The administration's support for the 2008 BiOp maintains the scientific and legal flaws that prevent any real consideration of dam breaching. The administration's passing reference to dam breaching as a 'contingency of last resort' defers all necessary economic, infrastructure and other studies, making this 'contingency' an illusion," said Samuel N. Penney, Chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe.
"The tribe had hoped the administration would chart a new course rather than follow the politics of the past," Penney said.
Reaction to Obama's salmon plan continues to come in from around the region.
Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell is praising the plan, saying it "meets scientific and legal requirements," The Associated Press reports.
But at least one Northwest congressman is criticizing the administration for feeding the debate over dam demolition.
"It is such a sad, terrible waste that this battle is being reignited, but let there be no doubt that we'll fight to save our dams in every way we can. These dams are here to stay," said Rep. Doc Hastings, whose district includes one of the lower Snake River dams.
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