It's Time to Implement Plans
by Bill McDonald & Steve Wright
The news for endangered Idaho salmon is good. Fall chinook are returning in such high numbers Idaho is enjoying its second consecutive fishing season - after more than 30 years without one. More Snake River sockeye have returned to Redfish Lake than any year since the 1950s.
Now there is more good news for Idaho. The federal government on Tuesday filed in U.S. court a strengthened plan implementing its 2008 biological opinion, which is the federal blueprint for operating the federal hydropower system. The biological opinion emerged from regional collaboration with backing from most Northwest tribes and states, including Idaho, and now provides extra insurance against declines in fish populations and the uncertainties of climate change.
Following thorough scientific review, the administration concluded that the biological opinion as supported by the new plan is legally and biologically sound and based on the best available science. But it's not about the status quo: Rather, it includes clear and measurable standards to ensure that more fish pass safely through dams and more will survive and thrive in the Columbia River estuary and spawning streams such as those in the mountains of Central Idaho.
That's vital because support for the biological opinion, which covers the entire Columbia River Basin, also represents support for a parallel opinion that guides water use in the Upper Snake River Basin. Without a valid Upper Snake opinion, which honors Idaho water rights, critical water allocations for Idaho agriculture would be in jeopardy.
Breaching the federal hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River is included in the strengthened plan, but only as an option of last resort. The plan specifies when and how we would examine that option, with science as our guide.
An overhaul of Columbia and Snake River dams during the past decade has already helped minimize their impact on migrating salmon. Favorable ocean conditions get credit for this year's strong runs, but better fish survival through dams also contributed. The biological opinion invests hundreds of millions of dollars in further dam improvements and habitat restoration, so more fish return to healthy rivers. It recognizes that we can both protect salmon and benefit from carbon-free hydroelectric power.
Saving salmon requires a plan based on sound science, plus the commitment and political will to implement this plan. The Pacific Northwest is fortunate to have both. It's time to get out of the courtroom and implement actions that will benefit salmon.
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