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Plan Endangers Columbia River

by Shirley Nixon, Guest Columnist
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 22, 2006

The Columbia River is an international treasure. It is river as icon: once home to one of the richest salmon fisheries on Earth, a mighty river where tribes fished and lived for generations beyond memory. Much has changed since U.S. and British explorers canoed these waters. Dams have turned "darkness to dawn" as the world's largest integrated hydropower system electrifies the Northwest. Massive pumps divert water to subsidize irrigated agriculture in the desert.

But "river as machine" is destroying river as ecosystem. Wild salmon teeter at extinction's abyss. Fishing communities and cultures are as endangered as the fish; recreational and fishing economies are faltering. Even Puget Sound orcas are harmed by the decline of the ocean-going Columbia River salmon that comprise much of the whales' winter diet.

Gov. Christine Gregoire and the Legislature last month enacted two laws that will have a major effect on the Columbia. When government shuts out key information, government risks making bad decisions -- and that is what happened when Olympia produced the new Columbia River Management Plan.

Scientific analysis and public debate are important predicates to major actions that significantly affect the quality of our environment. But this time the governor and Legislature foreclosed such input. Good science along with opportunities for thoughtful review and exploration of alternatives were discarded, replaced by political backroom wrangling to divvy up pieces of the river. Getting to political "yes" will eventually cost taxpayers billions and risks further damage to the river.

In 2003-2004, Washington asked the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study of fish survival and water management in the Columbia. The resulting study noted 85 percent of the Columbia's water comes from Canada and neighboring states, and that the entire Pacific Northwest depends on the river's gifts.

In light of the river's already degraded condition, the NAS advised Washington to avoid unilateral decision-making and work closely with other jurisdictions. The NAS cautioned against allowing new water diversions that couldn't be "called back" during times of lower flows -- an insurance policy to protect the river if climate change or other variables affect water availability in the future. It recommended market-based approaches to redistribute water that already has been allocated. Sad to say, those well-grounded and thoughtful recommendations went unheeded in the rush toward political expedience.

The plan directs the state to spend $16 million for water storage and water supply enhancement projects, including miles of conveyance systems to divert billions of gallons of water to irrigate Eastern Washington. The governor and Legislature also authorized an additional $200 million to be similarly spent over the next 10 years. That sum is likely to be only a down payment on what could become billions in taxpayer subsidized water projects.

Who will actually benefit, and by how much? The state is spending millions and necessitating a whole new taxpayer-funded bureaucracy without first weighing whether such measures are even necessary -- let alone cost-effective.

Some troubling specifics of the new Columbia River Management Plan include:

The areas contemplated for inundation include many miles of beautiful valleys, streams and natural features; many are home to rare and endangered species and are prized for their wildlife, ecological distinctiveness and aesthetic importance.

Such disregard for the value of the natural world represents a failure of this generation to fulfill its responsibilities as trustee of the environment for generations to come.

The abandonment of sound decision-making principles and the breakdown of public trust responsibilities for the Columbia River have not created a proud moment in the state's history. The river and the people of Washington deserve better.

Shirley Nixon is staff attorney for the Center for Environmental Law and Policy, a non-profit organization working to leave a legacy of clean, flowing water for Washington.
Plan Endangers Columbia River
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 22, 2006

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