Judge endangers salmon, dams plan

Once again, our way of life in the Northwest is being threatened. Today the threat isn’t from a politician or Wall Street financier. It’s from a judge in Portland.

With a stroke of a pen, U.S. District Judge James Redden last week undermined years of teamwork and collaboration and put removing the lower Snake River dams back on the table.

Redden threatened to reject a federal salmon restoration plan, required by the Endangered Species Act, because he doesn’t think it does enough to protect migrating salmon. The biological opinion, or BiOp, is an agreement between Idaho, Montana and Washington, most Columbia River tribes and the federal government to improve salmon runs without destroying the dams, their electricity and valuable irrigation reservoirs.

Redden’s decision contradicted his statement in March, when he praised the BiOp, saying it was very close to balancing the needs of power generation and salmon protection. However, after news the Obama administration wants to review the Bush-era BiOp, Redden decided to revisit the idea of removing the lower Snake River dams.

During this debate, it’s important to remember the facts.

First, salmon and dams can coexist. Salmon runs on the Snake and Columbia rivers are up. With the latest mitigation measures, salmon runs can be protected. We are making progress at habitat restoration, as well as improving salmon hatchery programs and dam operations.

Second, hydroelectric dams provide nearly 70 percent of Washington state’s electrical power, with zero carbon emissions. It would take three nuclear, six coal-fired or 14 gas-fired power plants to provide capacity equal to the four lower Snake River dams. These dams produce enough power to meet the annual needs of the city of Seattle. Our clean, renewable hydropower has kept the Northwest’s “carbon footprint” lowest in the country – at less than half that of the rest of the nation. Removal of the Snake River dams would add nearly 5.5 million tons of CO2 to the atmosphere each year.

Third, inexpensive hydroelectric power from these dams built the Northwest’s economy. They provide affordable, renewable energy for companies dependent on low-cost electricity, like Boeing and Kaiser Aluminum. For 60 years, dams have provided irrigation and flood control. This has turned what was once a desert into the fertile Columbia Basin, fueling a multibillion dollar agriculture industry. Additionally these dams meet critical transportation needs for agriculture and small businesses. Now, these dams are powering the high-tech industry in our state.

It’s our responsibility as citizens and policymakers to find the right balance. There are many ways to help the environment. Providing unrestricted salmon runs while increasing carbon output to the exclusion of recognizing the economic impacts on working families is a bad tradeoff.

As a member of Congress, I also am disturbed to see a judge imposing his opinion over the wishes of stakeholders who have worked for years to agree on a consensus solution. Even Gov. Chris Gregoire, a former director of the state Department of Ecology, supports the BiOp.

Finally, the important environmental needs of the salmon can be balanced with the needs of working families. The American entrepreneur faces numerous challenges in today’s environment, the economic recession, goods from China (the world’s largest carbon polluter), and the vulnerability of our dependence on overseas oil.

In 2009, those of us in the Northwest, faced with the challenging currents of foreign energy, failed banks and global polluters, might feel like it’s a long way upstream to long-term security and prosperity. It’s something Judge Redden should consider before he makes his final ruling.

Salmon and dams can coexist for the benefit of all. Snake River dams are clean, green, American sources of energy. They should stay.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican, represents the 5th District of Washington in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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