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Salmon Salvation

Will a new political order in the U.S. be enough to finally bring the dams down?



From the May 4, 2009 issue of High Country News


Scott Van Bergen settled onto a bench at the back of U.S. District Judge James Redden's Portland courtroom on a Friday morning in March and waited for the ninth - or perhaps the 29th - round of Pacific Northwest salmon vs. the dams to begin. His high school zoology class had just studied endangered species, and his teacher offered him the opportunity to see where a significant part of the effort to save imperiled creatures takes place - the federal courts.

Van Bergen is a bright Oregon native who aspires to become a marine biologist. He hopes "there will be a movement to bring the river back to where it was naturally," and that healthy runs of wild salmon and steelhead will swim the Columbia and Snake rivers by the time he gets his college degree.

Can the Pacific Northwest - indeed the nation - fulfill Van Bergen's dream of wild salmon recovery? For the first time in decades, the answer may be yes. Many biologists have long been clear about the best way to achieve it: remove four dams on the Lower Snake River so the fish can reach millions of acres of pristine habitat in central Idaho and northeast Oregon.

For nearly 20 years, however, the powerful federal agencies now appearing before Redden - including the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets the region's hydropower, and the Bureau of Reclamation and Army Corps of Engineers, which run some of the region's 200 major dams - have strenuously avoided dam removal. They've spent $8 billion on almost every conceivable alternative with little consequent improvement in the fortunes of wild fish. And they've cultivated allies among inland ports, utilities, the barging industry, the vanishing aluminum industry and politicians, including Washington state's senior senator, Democrat Patty Murray.

Some of those formidable obstacles to dam removal remain, but there are signs that the balance is tipping. President Barack Obama appears dedicated to science and transparency; a well-respected fisheries scientist is now in charge of a key federal agency; and new Northwestern politicians have signaled their willingness to help solve the salmon crisis. Some eastern Washington farmers and other dam beneficiaries appear willing to contemplate a future without the four Snake dams, and renewables in the region already produce as much electricity as these dams provide. A ban on commercial salmon fishing along the Oregon and California coasts for the second consecutive year will cost fishing communities hundreds of millions of dollars, adding urgency to salmon restoration. Most of all, Judge Redden is determined to make government agencies finally follow the Endangered Species Act.