This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Background The Lower Snake River is a major tributary of the Columbia River. In 1955, construction began on the first of four run-of-the-river hydroelectric dams on the Lower Snake River. The Lower Granite Dam, Little Goose Dam, Lower Monumental Dam, and Ice Harbor Dam are still fully operational today, and they generate enough electricity annually to feed the equivalent of Seattle’s total yearly power consumption.1 Like other dams in Columbia River Basin, however, the Lower Snake River dams are considered a major contributor to the rapid decline of local fish populations. Specifically, the dams block access to upstream habitat (either as a direct barrier or due to their turbines), increase predation vulnerability in reservoirs, and cause significant alteration of sensitive migration routes.2 Today, Columbia River Basin salmon runs have declined by 50% compared to 1980 levels, despite a cumulative $10 billion spent on conservation measures.3 In 1979, environmental groups responded to population declines by petitioning to have four genetically distinct Snake River populations of Chinook, Sockeye, and Steelhead Salmon listed under the Endangered Species Act. The federal government eventually afforded this status to thirteen genetically distinct Snake River fish populations.4 5 Consequently, the Snake River was designated as a critical habitat and fell under the purview of the ESA. Litigation In 1995, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service released its first ESA-mandated biological opinion, or BiOp, on the effect of the Lower Snake River hydroelectric dams on fish species survival and recovery. A BiOp is an environmental assessment conducted by a relevant federal regulatory agency(s) to ensure that an action
Geranios, Nicholas K. “Snake River dams enter political picture.” Associated Press, September 1, 2008. http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2008151144_apwstdampolitics.html 2 Kareiva1, Peter, Michelle Marvier, and Michelle McClure1. “Recovery and Management Options for Spring/Summer Chinook Salmon in the Columbia River Basin.” Science 3 November 2000: Vol. 290, no. 5493. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/290/5493/977.full, pp. 977-979. 3 Blumm, Michael. "The Real Story Behind the Columbia Basin Salmon Debacle: Preserving Dams Under the Endangered Species Act." Berkeley Electronic Press, 2011. http://works.bepress.com/michael_blumm/11, pp. 1 4 “Marine/Anadromous Fish Species Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).” NOAA Fisheries Service, March 9, 2012. http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/esa/fish.htm 5 Brandt-Erichsen, Svend A. “Close, but No Cigar: More Work Needed on Salmon and the Columbia Hydro System.” Marten Law, August 9, 2011, http://www.martenlaw.com/newsletter/20110809-salmon-and-columbiahydro-system
Matthews 2 proposed by a separate federal agency(s) does not pose a threat to an ESA-listed species or its habitat. Environmental groups successfully sued over the BiOp findings, forcing NOAA Fisheries to revise the BiOp. In 2000, scientists at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partnered with NOAA Fisheries to release a second, broader BiOp covering Snake and Columbia River hydroelectric dams. Among the measures proposed to lessen the impact of the dams on fish were increased water spills, transportation of juvenile fishes past dams via barges, habitat improvements, and assorted offsite mitigation efforts; however, removing or breaching the dams was neither proposed nor explored.6 In 2003, a coalition of groups, including the National Wildlife Federation, the state of Oregon, and the Nez Perce tribe, brought a suit against the 2000 BiOp in the United States District Court for the District of Oregon. Judge James Redden sided with the plaintiffs, blasting the BiOp as “cynical and shameful.”7 Judge Redden remanded the 2000 BiOp, allowing it to take effect, but at the same time demanding significant revisions. The Bush administration released another BiOp in 2004, which was again remanded by Judge Redden for containing numerous structural and scientific flaws, a verdict that was upheld upon appeal to the Ninth Circuit. A fourth BiOp was drafted by the Bush administration in 2008, and in 2009, the Obama administration supported its basic framework. This action was perplexing. The Obama administration has repeatedly expressed a commitment to scientifically informed policymaking. Intense regional political pressures to preserve the status quo seems to have inappropriately muddled that commitment, as documented by commentators such as Steven Hawley.8 9 In August 2011, Judge Redden once again remanded the BiOp, rejecting its long-term findings and approving it only through the year 2013.10 Judge Redden ordered NOAA Fisheries to submit a revised BiOp by January 1, 2014, and strongly urged NOAA Fisheries to consider the potential for dam removal.11 Scientific Necessity Judge Redden identified major scientific shortcomings in the 2008 BiOp. He remanded the BiOp because the measures contained therein did not demonstrate a sufficient propensity to reverse declines in threatened and endangered fish populations in the Snake River, and in particular for the following reasons:
“Endangered Species Act and Columbia River salmon and steelhead.” Northwest Power and Conservation Council, January 6, 2010. http://www.nwcouncil.org/history/endangeredspeciesact.asp 7 VanDevelder, Paul. “The reckoning: A looming decision on endangered salmon will set the stage for momentous battles over the future.” The Oregonian, February 12, 2011, http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2011/02/the_reckoning_a_looming_decisi.html 8 Blumm, pp. 3 9 VanDevelder 10 Brandt-Erichsen 11 “Salmon BiOp Plaintiffs’ Urge New Judge To Consider Settlement Judge, Science Panel.” Columbia Basin Bulletin, December 9, 2011. http://www.cbbulletin.com/414646.aspx
Matthews 3 The BiOp relies largely on “speculative, uncertain, and unidentified” habitat improvements Government scientists did not find support for the proposed measures in the literature There is no evidence for the government’s quantitative survival estimates No metric for evaluating performance is identified The plan does not adequately explore emergency measures (namely, the removal of dams) if population declines reach the brink of irreversibility No scientific evidence is offered to support reducing spring and summer spill, which is a strategy that has empirically increased juvenile downstream survival rates12
Additionally, Judge Redden rejected the government’s argument that a demonstration of populations “trending towards recovery” created compliance with the provisions of the ESA. Even if such an interpretation of the ESA were permissible, evidence to support such a trend is arbitrary at best.13 Conversely, there is a wealth of scientific evidence to support the removal or breaching of the dams. Doing so would create a 220-mile stretch of unimpeded waters that would function as prime spawning grounds for salmon populations. While the effects of dam removal are still not fully understood, even a worst-case scenario—one where improvements in spawning did not materialize in the immediate area—would still result in drastic reductions in the mortality of populations that spawn upstream in the Salmon River and Clearwater River. Additionally, removal of the dams could potentially restore the Lower Snake River ecosystem to its natural state or a near equivalent.14 This would provide a valuable test case for future dam-removal efforts, as scientists would have unprecedented access to new experimental data. Policy Statement The Obama administration should direct the NOAA Fisheries Service to submit a BiOp to the United States District Court for the District of Oregon that designates the removal of the Lower Granite Dam, Little Goose Dam, Lower Monumental Dam, and Ice Harbor Dam as the preferred method of ensuring the recovery of Snake River fish populations listed under the ESA. Implementation The provisions of the ESA are very explicit—decisions about endangered species protections cannot be influenced by political considerations. Only the best available science may drive these decisions, and the Obama administration should make this clear by signaling to NOAA Fisheries that they need not avoid scientifically sound conclusions for fear of political repercussions.
NPCC ibid 14 Blumm, Michael; Laird J. Lucas; Don B. Miller; Daniel J. Rohlf. “Saving Snake River Water and Salmon Simultaneously: The Biological, Economic, and Legal Case for Breaching the Lower Snake River Dams, Lowering John Day Reservoir, and Restoring Natural River Flows.” Symposium on Water Law, Environmental Law, Vol 28, 1998, pp. 1051-1052.
Matthews 4 Under this proposal, NOAA Fisheries would be free to prepare a BiOp to recommend the removal of the dams. This revised BiOp would fully comply with the ESA and would almost certainly past muster in the courts. Throughout his time on the Lower Snake River case, Judge Redden consistently indicated that aggressive measures would be necessary to definitively settle ESA compliance. Indeed, after retiring from the case in 2011, Judge Redden publically indicated his support for the removal of the dams.15 Once the BiOp is submitted on January 1, 2014, Judge Michael Simon and other litigant parties will review it in accordance with Judge Redden’s remand order. If approved, the BiOp would then form the basis of a draft recovery plan for Snake River fish populations. Such a plan would prepare, manage, and eventually execute a removal or breaching of the four Lower Snake River dams. Although the process would not be immediate—business groups would almost certainly appeal the BiOp approval, for instance—the removal of the dams would likely occur quickly enough to ensure the recovery of the Snake River fish populations. Net Benefits and Disadvantages The ESA prohibits the courts from evaluating utilitarian arguments in relation to species conservation. However, because the Obama administration has the opportunity to influence the arguments presented to the court, it is important to consider the benefits and disadvantages of dam removal. Advantages: Quantifiable economic benefits and ecosystem services from species/population recovery Enhanced potential for tourism and recreation Elimination of costs associated with dam maintenance and Clean Water Act compliance Avoidance of up to $30 billion in codified liability if population extinctions occur16 Decrease in river siltation and commensurate reduction of flooding vulnerability17
Disadvantages: Loss of irrigation capabilities Loss of power generation capacity Reduction of barge operations and closure of Lewiston, ID inland port
These disadvantages are by no means irremediable. For example, it is possible to replace hydroelectric output with renewable sources of energy without significantly increasing electricity prices for ratepayers.18
Associated Press. “Former salmon judge: Snake dams should come down.” April 25, 2012, http://www.seattlepi.com/news/article/Former-salmon-judge-Snake-dams-should-come-down-3510962.php 16 VanDevelder 17 Blumm, “The Real Story,” pp. 5 18 Blumm et al., “Saving Snake River,” pp. 1030, 1052
Matthews 5 Political Considerations: From a political standpoint, this policy option is preferable for several reasons. First, although the Obama administration may direct NOAA Fisheries to immediately commence work on a revised BiOp, it will not be necessary to disclose this fact until after the November elections. The Snake River issue is politically charged at the regional level, and the delay will minimize the immediate electoral consequences associated with removing the dams. As a lame duck president, Obama would be largely free from electoral constraints. Second, this policy approach uses the judiciary as a shield against a loss of political capital. Although multiple Pacific Northwest congresspersons vehemently oppose dam removal, the Lower Snake River case has been in litigation for over a decade. It will not be difficult to frame a BiOp recommending dam removal as an “admission” that no other alternative is likely to break the stalemate in the courts. Responsibility for the content of the BiOp can also be wholly assigned to NOAA Fisheries, rather than to the President or his close advisors. Third, while it would be theoretically possible to simply order the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to remove the dams, this would invite substantial political backlash from Congress. For example, Congress could act to deny funding for the removal. The President would also be perceived as personally liable for ordering the removal. The judicial route avoids these problems by backing dam removal with the binding force of a court order. Conclusion The Obama administration should seriously consider the substantial scientific evidence in favor of removing or breaching the Lower Snake River dams. The Lower Snake River represents a key flashpoint in the struggle over endangered fish protections, and it is critical for the administration to respond appropriately.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue listening from where you left off, or restart the preview.