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Activists Press the Reset on Breaching Debate

by Kevin Richert
Idaho Statesman, April 9, 2009

1994 - Idaho's Governor Cecil Andrus releases an adult sockeye to spawn naturally in Redfish Lake, Idaho So the lower Snake's No. 3 ranking Tuesday in an annual "endangered rivers list" is a P.R. maneuver. The lower Snake didn't even make last year's Top 10 list from American Rivers, a national environmental group.

American Rivers - a Washington, D.C.-based group with more than 65,000 members and supporters nationwide - is clearly trying to raise the stakes and the national profile of the salmon issue.

And why not?

A new president. New faces in Congress. Another federal court decision - expected later this spring - on a leftover Bush administration salmon recovery plan. There is no better time for salmon advocates to go national on the Snake River salmon issue.

Even with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game predicting the largest chinook salmon return since 2001, the long-range prognosis for Idaho's wild salmon remains uncertain, largely because of the river conditions created by the four dams on the lower Snake River. The dams create a lethal hurdle to young salmon migrating to the Pacific Ocean, and a lazy 140-mile slackwater river laden with predators that feast on salmon returning to spawn.

A good argument, but hardly new. Same goes for the environmentalists' case that the high-altitude salmon spawning habitat in Idaho's Stanley Basin is critical to the long-term health of the species. Global warming will affect lower-altitude spawning streams, making the Snake River Basin a potential "salmon stronghold," says American Rivers.

The lone new wrinkle: Environmentalists are taking aim at the epicenter of Idaho's dam-breaching antipathy, the Lewiston area. They argue that the lower Snake dams, which turned Lewiston into Idaho's port city, now pose a flood threat to the area. So much silt has accumulated behind the dams that taxpayers will either have to spend $87 million to protect Lewiston by raising the levees - or remove the dams.

But even the silt buildup is an old story, one deployed both by breaching advocates and critics.

The talking points haven't changed much, but the political climate certainly has. As much as anything, the American Rivers ranking is directed at one person: President Obama. Environmentalists hope Obama takes up the cause of salmon recovery, whether or not U.S. District Judge James Redden tosses out the Bush administration's final stab at a salmon plan.

"If the plan is invalidated, the Obama administration and the Northwest congressional delegation must convene negotiations that include discussion of lower Snake dam removal," writes American Rivers. "If the plan is not invalidated, the Obama administration should withdraw the Bush-era plan and convene stakeholders to forge a new plan that will work for Snake River salmon and Northwest communities in light of the threats posed by the dams and global warming."

American Rivers isn't alone in lobbying the administration. Former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus is urging Obama to work with Northwest lawmakers, such as Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Jim Risch, R-Idaho, who have expressed an interest in regional negotiations.

"Because good salmon policy is good jobs policy, it fits the president's focus on the economy," wrote Andrus in a recent guest opinion in Idaho Statesman.

Andrus doesn't mention dam-breaching in his guest opinion and, like Obama, Andrus has not advocated this step. But Andrus is still a powerful force on the side of salmon advocates - the former interior secretary, an early Obama campaign supporter, would surely have traction with the administration.

Salmon advocates have waited through the Bush years to press the reset on the dam-breaching debate. With a more environmentally friendly administration in place, they aren't holding back. This debate is about to get a lot more interesting.

Related Sites:
Endangered Rivers Report by American Rivers

Kevin Richert
Activists Press the Reset on Breaching Debate
Idaho Statesman, April 9, 2009

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