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State has Stake in Columbia Salmon Solution

by Zeke Grader
Sacramento Bee, January 17, 2012

The story of Pacific salmon has not recently been a happy one. Population declines in the West Coast's big three rivers - the Sacramento-San Joaquin, Klamath and Columbia-Snake - have meant less fishing, lost jobs, scarce fish and higher prices for consumers. Without major changes to how we manage these waterways, the beating heart of our region's salmon economy may cease.

Fortunately, there are some bright spots on the horizon. On a growing number of rivers, adversaries are opting to collaborate rather than litigate. People are starting to work together to restore rivers, recover salmon and rebuild jobs.

On the San Joaquin River, for example, city leaders, farmers, fishermen and conservationists ended decades of litigation when they sat down together to craft a plan they all could live with. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein then shepherded the plan through Congress. It has restored water - and salmon - to a 60-mile stretch of river, reconnecting it to San Francisco Bay for the first time in 70 years. Twenty exhausting years of conflict are over.

Farther north, farmers, fishermen, Native American tribes and others have made important progress working together to secure a future for farming and fishing based on a plan that will restore the Klamath River by removing four dams.

Finally, as the result of successful collaborations in Washington state, three dam removals commenced this fall on two other salmon rivers. After resolving issues such as energy and water quality, both the Elwha and White Salmon rivers will flow freely for the first time in a century and provide habitat to struggling salmon runs - benefiting our region's ecology and its economy.

Our next big opportunity to restore salmon and jobs rests on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington. The Columbia basin was once the world's most productive salmon watershed. The Columbia River's largest tributary, the Snake, once produced nearly half of this abundance. Today, thousands of miles of pristine habitat remain, much of it in the wilds of central Idaho. Unfortunately, four dams on the lower Snake make passage lethal for migrating salmon. Completed in the 1970s, these dams are the straw that broke the camel's back. After the dams' construction, all Snake River salmon populations plummeted.

The government's Columbia basin restoration efforts to date have failed both fish and fisherman. Last summer, a federal judge rejected the Obama plan - the fourth to be deemed illegal since 1995. Our government has spent $10 billion over two decades on largely ineffective measures. Faced with a court order to produce a new plan within two years, the same agencies responsible for this series of illegal plans are poised to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Following on these other restoration success stories, it's time for President Barack Obama and our elected leaders on the West Coast - including Gov. Jerry Brown and Sens. Barbara Boxer and Feinstein - to support a stakeholder process to address the needs of Columbia basin salmon and the jobs they support.

Success will require fresh ideas. The process must be guided by science and law, and engage the actual stakeholders - including farmers, fishermen, power producers and consumers - whose lives and businesses are affected by salmon restoration efforts.

Support for an approach like this for the Columbia basin is growing. Late last year, for example, more than 50 members of Congress - including 20 from California - sent a letter to the president urging him to convene a regionwide "solutions table" in order to restore salmon and meet community needs.

California will need a seat at this table. Many of our state's salmon fishermen hold licenses in states across the coast, where many Columbia/Snake River fish are harvested. Owning multiple fishing licenses is critical for businesses in an industry known for its ups and downs.

In addition, because salmon from these different rivers mix in the saltwater, fishing regulations have been set up to protect the most vulnerable runs. Therefore, in order to truly restore a vibrant commercial salmon fishing sector on the West Coast, we need to restore healthy, self-sustaining and harvestable populations on all of our "big three" rivers.

Establishing a stakeholder process to resolve the conflicts on the Columbia is the next big thing for salmon fishermen. California needs to be part of this solution. Recent history demonstrates that these processes can work, and, done right, the benefits that accrue help not only fishermen, but farmers, energy producers and local communities, too.

Zeke Grader is executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.
State has Stake in Columbia Salmon Solution
Sacramento Bee, January 17, 2012

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